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Now here's a crime you may not have heard of. Every day a quarter million people in this country call a locksmith, or at least they think they're calling a locksmith. Often what they're really getting is a con.

Sandy Hausman reports on what the Better Business Bureau calls a nationwide locksmith swindle.

SANDY HAUSMAN: When Ray Miller lost his keys in suburban Chicago last year, he called the police. They looked in the Yellow Pages and gave him the number for a locksmith service called Price Line. Several hours later, a guy in an unmarked van showed up, said he couldn't pick Miller's lock, but could drill it out. Miller didn't like the idea, but the man told him...

Mr. RAY MILLER: I came here to do a job and that's how it's going be.

HAUSMAN: So he wouldn't take no for an answer?

Mr. MILLER: Correct.

HAUSMAN: What's more, the guy wanted $1,709 for his services. And Miller knew that was rip-off.

Mr. MILLER: Fraud, pure and simple.

HAUSMAN: But the 68-year-old felt intimidated, so he handed over his credit card. The next day he put a stop on the charge and called police again. They contacted Mike Bronzell, president of the Illinois and Indiana Locksmith Association. He'd heard stories like this before. Bronzell first noticed a problem five years ago, when he opened the latest edition of his phone book and found dozens of new listings.

Mr. MIKE BRONZELL (Illinois and Indiana Locksmith Association): Some of the addresses were in my neighborhood. I'm like, there's no locksmith there. So I drove over by one of the places, thinking, well, maybe somebody opened up there. And I get there and the address is a pizza place. I go to the next place, it's a Chinese restaurant.

HAUSMAN: And when he called the local numbers listed, he was connected to phone banks in New York or New Jersey. These companies did business under dozens of different names, but their tactics were similar.

Mr. BRONZEL: They would take all the locks off the people's doors and they would put them on the floor. And then they'll tell them, this is how much you have to pay, you know, some crazy price.

HAUSMAN: Illinois's Attorney General Lisa Madigan had also been getting calls and had 25 complaints on file against Price Line and a firm called Superb Solutions.

Ms. LISA MADIGAN (Attorney General, Illinois): Both of those companies are based in New York. All of these people thought that they were calling somebody local. And all of these people, when they were quoted a price, ultimately paid at least three times, if not much more than that, the initial quote.

HAUSMAN: The state eventually barred those firms from working in Illinois, fined each $10,000, and forced them to pay customers back. But complaints keep coming from 35 other states, more than 500 of them last year alone.

Alison Preszler is a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau.

Ms. ALISON PRESZLER (Better Business Bureau): This is something serious. I mean, we've heard from a lot of consumers who've been ripped off, and it's just the tip of the iceberg.

HAUSMAN: Preszler says the industry is poorly regulated, with only nine states licensing locksmiths. So Preszler advises consumers to be proactive. Find a locksmith you trust before you need one. Get recommendations from your local Better Business Bureau, chamber of commerce, or your state locksmith association.

Don Defritus(ph), a Chicago area locksmith, adds you should not be afraid to ask questions.

Mr. DON DEFRITUS (Locksmith): They should ask the company what town they're located in. And if they fidget or do not show what town they are, ask them to name a few other towns around the general area.

HAUSMAN: Beware of companies that ask for your zip code or a workman who won't show ID. Don't sign a blank form authorizing work. Never pay cash. And get an itemized receipt. If you suspect fraud, call the police.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.

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