David Villarreal was traveling home to Austin, Texas, after a recent weekend holiday trip to visit family several hours away when he realized he had left his house keys with his family.
It had been a long drive. Some of his family had traveled back with him, and he was tired. All he wanted was to get into his apartment as quickly as possible.
“I ended up using my cellphone to Google Austin-area locksmiths,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal contacted the first locksmith company to show up in the search results, which advertised a residential lockout fee of just $15. However, when the locksmith showed up and began the work, he quoted Villarreal a price of $145. Further, the locksmith immediately started drilling out the lock instead of trying to pick it first, and then asked to be paid in cash or with a check made out to him personally.
He didn’t realize it yet, but Villarreal had experienced three red flags signaling how not to hire a locksmith.
In the locksmith industry, the most common issue is with companies creating misleading listings on Internet search engines and in telephone books that make it look like they are a local business. When customers call in, they are instead routed to a centralized call center where the reps promise fast service and an unbelievably low price. Instead, they send out an independent contractor who often delivers neither. As was the case with Villarreal, the “locksmith” shows up in an unmarked vehicle, with no identifying uniform or business cards.
“He showed up in kind of a beat up white pickup,” Villarreal said. “His shoes had holes in them. He had a tool bag, but it wasn’t really filled. So, I was a little worried at first, but he was chatty and I like giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I was like, ‘Just do the job. I need to get in.’ But getting in took over an hour. He wasn’t professional or prepared. It didn’t seem like he was skilled at being a locksmith.”
A few states require that locksmiths be licensed, but most don’t, adding to the challenge of separating good locksmiths from the bad. A qualified locksmith should ask qualifying questions of their potential customers before coming out to do the work, including what type of lockout it is and if the customer can produce identification that proves he or she should have access to that vehicle or home.
“We’ll find out where they are and give them an approximate time of how long it will take and an approximate cost of what it would be,” said Steve Asbill, who has operated Charlotte, N.C.-based Asbill’s Lock & Key for 28 years. “I’ll check their driver’s license and address to make sure they are the (owner).”
One red flag, Asbill said, is a locksmith who immediately says he or she needs to drill the lock. That should be a last resort, not the first.
“Another thing is, if (the locksmith doesn’t) don’t give you a good, approximate price of what it’s going to cost (upfront), then I wouldn’t go with them,” Asbill said. “(Often), they’ll give you double talk on the telephone and say it depends on the tools they need to use.”
Asbill said he always arrives in a company vehicle that clearly displays his business name, phone number and website.
“You’re going to know it’s me when I show up,”
When looking for a locksmith service, the best practice is to plan in advance. Find a local, trustworthy company and store their information in your cellphone, wallet or purse. Look for a company that can prove it is locally owned and operated.
If you hire a locksmith, be sure to get a copy of the invoice, that it’s itemized and only pay with a credit card, so you can have recourse to dispute the charge, if necessary. If you are charged more than the price quoted, don’t fall for threats or scare tactics, including calling the police, withholding your keys or driver’s license, or demanding cash. Always ask for proof that the company is bonded, insured and licensed where applicable.Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie’s List, a resource for local consumer reviews on topics such as home repair and healthcare.