Updated: 03/08/2013 7:26 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer
A local locksmith company tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS it's asking the Minnesota attorney general to investigate one of its competitors. The company in question recently set up shop in Edina. It's being accused of engaging in deceptive business practices by over-charging customers.
The whistle blower who says he tipped the AG off to the alleged scam spoke out for the first time Thursday, saying he felt "guilty" about the "fraud." He asked to remain anonymous. For the purposes of this report, we'll call him "Frank."
Frank says he was hired by Lior Group LLC. to respond to emergency auto and house lockouts, though he had absolutely no training or experience.
Frank showed 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS a log of the calls he said he went on during a single week. He says it indicates that his employer provided locksmith services under a variety of company names, and shows charges for those services ranging from $50 to $175.
Frank says that in most cases, he unfairly inflated the prices in the field, even though consumers "were quoted about $50 dollars" over the phone.
Frank says when he'd show up at the scene he was told to assess the locked-out situation and then size up the customer. Then he'd charge them whatever he thought he could get out of them. "The guy that trained me told me to get as much money as possible. So if you can get $180, you get $180. He told me to tell the people that I'd have to use special tools, that it's going to take more time, that the car is difficult."
At the offices of Lior Group LLC in Edina, a man who came to the door Thursday identified himself as the owner. He told 5EYEWITNESS NEWS that estimates given over the phone to consumers can change once an employee assesses the situation in the field. But he repeatedly denied that any customers have been over-billed for locksmith services.
According to Mark Bellestri, the owner of a competing locksmith company in Northeast Minneapolis called Pop-A-Lock, "It's really an ongoing problem. It's a rip-off. They're taking advantage of people who are either embarrassed or they feel uncomfortable confronting somebody on a price because that's not their nature."
Bellestri continued, "If you want to charge $200 dollars for a car lockout, so be it. Just let the customer know up front. Let the customer be the intelligent decision maker on that. But what they do--that's unfair. That's unethical."
Although both Bellestri and Frank have shared their concerns with the attorney general's office, the AG says it can't comment on, or even confirm an investigation is underway unless it initiates legal proceedings.
Consumers who are "taken" by a disreputable locksmith often have a tough time recovering their money. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota says just about 25 percent of complaints filed against locksmiths in the last three years have been resolved. In comparison, overall, 90-percent of complaints are resolved.
Unlike other states, Minnesota doesn't regulate locksmiths. But the attorney general and the BBB do offer these tips:
Finding a Locksmith:
*Find a company before you need it. Get recommendations from friends and family and then save the number in your phone in case of emergency.
*Skip Google and instead choose an accredited locksmith in good standing with the BBB. A list can be found on its website (www.bbb.org) or iPhone App.
*You can also check with the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), an organization that abides by a code of ethics and insists on certain training standards requirements (www.mnaloa.org).
*Pick a shop with a storefront. Someone who has an actual storefront is easier to track down should there be a problem.
*Avoid locksmiths with 800 numbers. Chances are good the company is based in another state.
*Call and compare several different locksmiths before deciding whose service you will use.
*Ask the person answering the phone for the actual address of the locksmith to ensure reliability. Be wary if they simply answer "locksmith" and refuse to give a full name of the company.
*Have an estimate emailed to you before any work begins. Be wary of any locksmith who says it cannot provide an estimate until after the vehicle is inspected.
*In the estimate, the locksmith should be able to give an exact quote based on the year, make, and model of your vehicle.
*The estimate should include a total cost for all work, additional fees, and replacement parts.
*Always ask the locksmiths for a worst case scenario, meaning before you ask them to come out, ask them what their highest possible price might be, given your situation.
*Read the fine print. Be sure to read any contract thoroughly before signing. Check for additional fees that weren't discussed and understand the terms of any guarantees. Ask what the company will do should the locksmith damage your property and make sure that is in writing as well.
*Confirm that the locksmith is insured to cover damage that may result from the repair.
*Never just sign a blank work authorization form.
On the Scene:
*Ask for an ID, a business card, and a license when the locksmith arrives. Locksmiths are required to carry a copy of their licenses.
*Be wary if you're told the lock has to be drilled and replaced. A skilled and reputable locksmith should have the training necessary to unlock any door.
*After the service is finished, be sure to get an itemized receipt that includes the price of the service call, labor, and mileage.
*Don't pay cash. Even mobile locksmiths should be able to accept credit cards or checks. Scammers will often insist that the machine is broken or give another excuse for needing cash. Don't fall for it.
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org