Scores of unlicensed locksmiths rip off customers and businesses alike, consumers warned

Phoney businesses, fake invoices, credit card trickery, unneeded lock removals —​ consumers are being warned of these cons and more as unlicensed locksmiths rip off customers and legitimate businesses alike.

Last week, CBC News told the story of Calgary landlord who refused to pay a locksmith when he tried to charge her $773.85 for a job that was quoted at about $300 and wouldn't provide an itemized invoice to explain the discrepancy.

Tips then poured in to CBC News from people who were victims of price gouging, intimidation, sketchy business practices and property destruction when dealing with people claiming to be locksmiths in paid ads that appeared at the top of Google search results — as well as from concerned locksmiths who say the practices give the whole industry a black eye.

Steve Bochenski, who's been a locksmith for 35 years, says he hears all the time about people who have been taken advantage of by what he believes to be unlicensed cons — and even fell prey himself.

"They advertised on the internet with my address and business name and a different phone number," said Bochenski, who owns Mobile Locksmith Inc. in Calgary.

"I called him up and said, 'You're using my business name' and he told me it'd take a couple of weeks but they'd take it down."

Secret sting operation

Bochenski said the ad was taken down eventually, but the damage was done. He contacted his lawyer, who said he needed to find out who they were.

"I set up a sting with a lock that looked easy to pick but it was actually really hard to pick and I called them out," Bochenski said.

He​ filmed the man claiming to be a locksmith, who destroyed the lock and used a drill instead of a pick. Bochenski paid him and got an invoice.

"He charged GST, he charged $250 cash and no GST number on the invoice — they're phoney invoices," he said, adding that there was no way to identify the person or company on the paper.

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Bochenski says the man caught in his sting operation was eventually charged and fined $300 – but it wasn't much of a deterrent. 

"He paid it and then went out to work again right away. So, they busted him again and then he left the country and didn't show up in court."

Bochenski said generally he does upward of $30,000 in work each month, but in one month when his business name and address were being used fraudulently, he made only $5,000.

He says it happens all the time, to him and to other legitimate locksmiths. He's had an apprentice for the past three years, but says he can't offer full-time work because of how much business is being stolen by fakes.

'You were completely scammed'

Christine MacInnes says she called a locksmith she found in a Google ad after getting locked out of her house last April.

The first thing that MacInnes thought was strange was that the man showed up in an unmarked vehicle and didn't have any visible ID badge or card.

"I have two locks so at first he tried to pick them and then he said, 'Oh, this a seven-pin lock: it's really complicated so I'll have to drill it out," she said.

"And I just thought, 'Do what you have to do, I need to get in.'"

MacInnes said he then quoted her a price of $170 to drill out each of her two locks, which she found unsettling having seen a rate of $15 quoted online.

But when it came time to pay, the price had again escalated.

"He ended up charging me $540 for everything," she said. 

After speaking with her fiancé, MacInnes said she realized how overpriced $540 was and eventually got in contact with someone she confirmed was licensed. 

"I brought the drilled out lock from my house and he told me it was an easy, pick-able lock that should have cost me max $200," she said.

"He said, 'You were completely scammed. It happens all the time in Calgary. They go unlicensed and are able to do this. You didn't need either of your locks drilled out.'"

'I felt so vulnerable'

MacInnes said the so-called locksmith knew he could take advantage of her because she had a fussy baby on her hands and wanted to get in right away.

"He knew he could do whatever he wanted and charge me whatever he wanted," she said.

"I felt so vulnerable, and I'm sickened by the fact that he did that to me and probably many others as well."

Tips to protect yourself

Nate Ryder, vice-president of the Professional Locksmiths Association of Alberta, says there are a number of things people can do to avoid being duped.

"Ask for credentials," he said. "In Alberta, all locksmiths have to be licensed under the Security Services and Investigators Act."

In order to be licensed as a locksmith in Alberta, a person must be a certified journeyman or registered as an apprentice training in Alberta. Locksmith apprenticeships last three years, including a minimum of 1,560 hours of on-the-job experience and eight weeks of technical training a year.

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They must also pass a criminal record check.

Ryder said locksmiths, when asked, should be able to produce their licence — which looks similar to a drivers licence.

He also warned that no accredited locksmith would come out for $15, the price of many locksmiths in Calgary listed in ads at the top of Google search results.

"Anyone who is offering any kind of locksmith services for a fee of less than 60 to 70 bucks is a red flag," he said. "No one is going to offer a service for that cheap."

Further, Ryder said it's illegal under the Criminal Code to carry picks or bypass tools or anything essentially used to break and enter unless you're a licensed locksmith.

"Obviously, locksmiths perform a legal break-and-enter for people who own that property," he said. "But it is actually illegal and people can be charged."

According to the Criminal Code, someone convicted of breaking and entering with intent could face up to life in prison for breaking into a dwelling.

Watch for false addresses

Bochenski also offered a few tips to avoid being victimized.

"What they'll do is take an address from anywhere — a Tim Hortons, car dealership, a residential house," he said.

He suggests people check to ensure the business exists physically and isn't using a fake address — for example, by checking that it appears in a Google Streetview photo or checking the database of registered locksmiths on the Professional Locksmiths Association of Alberta's website.

Many of the fake websites use multiple phone numbers that are sent to call centres out of the country, he said.

Bochenski said some scammers will also claim their credit card machines are down and demand cash, even insisting on following customers to an ATM.

"They'll be letting you into your car and they'll hold on to your keys until you pay them. They'll hold you hostage, but you won't find someone who operates that way and is licensed."

Charged by different company 

That's what happened to Shelly Litt. 

After calling a locksmith on Nov. 8, he showed up in an unmarked vehicle and drilled a $25 lock that she'd purchased at Walmart.

Her mother had found the locksmith online and rates suggested it would cost no more than $75. But when it came time to pay, Litt was told it would cost $500.

"At this point, I was pretty uncomfortable and I wanted him to leave so I thought, 'OK, I'll just pay the ridiculous amount,'" she said. 

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She said the man asked for her credit card information and began giving it to someone else over the phone — then said her card was declined and he didn't accept debit.

"He said, 'We can go to an ATM and I can drive you,' and I said no, because that's really suspicious."

Shelly said he was being really pushy and tried to prevent her from making phone calls, but she eventually reached her mother, who — worried for her daughter's safety — gave her credit card information and it was accepted. 

Her mother then called the credit card company to report a fraud and found the charge had already gone through — but under a totally different business name. 

The pair have since reported the incident to Alberta Consumer Protection.