STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now let's come back to the United States to Virginia where state officials are struggling to get a handle on of the problem of fraudulent locksmiths.
Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF has this report.
SANDY HAUSMAN: Bill Roberts has been a locksmith serving small cities in central Virginia for seven years.
Mr. BILL ROBERTS (Locksmith): Im just going to pry your door open for a hair, and then insert a rod gently into the car and pop the lock.
HAUSMAN: He says its a good, steady business.
Mr. ROBERTS: If you dont mind working long hours and being on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, it makes it a little hard on family life at times but, yes, its not a bad business to get into.
HAUSMAN: But 100 miles to the north, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., locksmith Mark Baldino is worried. From his office, he does a computer search for locksmiths in Reston, Virginia.
Mr. MARK BALDINO (Locksmith): B is our red dot, but within have a half a mile you see one, two, three, four, five other locksmiths, and if you scan out on the map now just a little bit further, youll see about 10 locations, maybe 20.
HAUSMAN: The problem is that few of those listings are legitimate locksmiths. Most ring to an out of state call bank that quotes a low rate, then dispatches a con man whos not trained to pick locks.
Joanne Grimes is a retired teacher who owns rental property in Alexandria, Virginia. Her tenants were told a service call would cost 185 bucks, but the bill came to $586.
Ms. JOANNE GRIME: You know, I can go to Home Depot and buy a lock and a door for $600.
HAUSMAN: Grimes contacted the Better Business Bureau, where president Edward Johnson has been trying for five years to get something done about phony locksmiths.
Mr. EDWARD JOHNSON (President, Better Business Bureau): One of the larger ones that the BBB has identified is a company that poses as a local locksmith in cities across the country and indeed they advertise in the Yellow Pages using local phone numbers and fake local addresses, and a consumer might think theyre dealing with a local locksmith, but the phone call is actually routed to a call center located in the Bronx of New York City.
HAUSMAN: But stopping these scammers has been difficult. Richmond locksmith Jeff Musser, who founded a company called 1-800-UNLOCKS, says consumers rarely dispute the bill.
Mr. JEFF MUSSER (Co-owner, 1-800-UNLOCKS): Theyve got a kid to pick up from school. Their husband is at work. Theyve got to get that key made. When they give a credit card, skys the limit with the credit card.
HAUSMAN: And his partner, Barry Wilson, says some victims are afraid to complain. He recently got a call from a woman who said she was overcharged and left with a broken lock.
Mr. BARRY WILSON (Co-owner, 1-800-UNLOCKS): Her door lock was drilled open, and she was pretty petrified. I tried to get her to talk with the investigator from the Department of Criminal Justice and she just wouldnt. She just said please come and fix it, and Ill pay you whatever. So I dont know if she was threatened.
HAUSMAN: Did she say whether they got any money from her?
Mr. WILSON: Oh yeah, he made her get it out of the debit machine that night.
HAUSMAN: In response to this situation, locksmiths have been joining a Texas-based trade group the Associated Locksmiths of America. Their dues help pay for a series of public service announcements something attorneys general have also tried.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MACIE PRIDGIN (Public Information Officer, Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorneys office): Hello. Im Macie Pridgin, public information officer for the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorneys office, warning citizens to beware of untrustworthy locksmith companies who are ripping off consumers across the country.
HAUSMAN: And the group hired a lobbyist to promote stricter laws. Fifteen states now regulate locksmiths, and a few have taken con artists to court. The locksmith scam has even caught the attention of the FBI, but so far the bureau says its not dangerous or costly enough to warrant a national investigation.
For NPR News, Im Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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