CHARLOTTE, N.C. — You lock your keys in your car. You call a locksmith. But, if you get the wrong one, that person may take advantage of you when you're desperate.
Jamie Smith had to get her daughter, Jasmine, from school. So she loaded her twin sons in her SUV and went to start the vehicle, but couldn't find her keys. She started to panic. So she Googled "locksmiths near me" and called the first one that popped up.
She said the locksmith told her it would cost about $50, but ended up charging her almost six times that: $279. "I don't know what the reason was," she said. But she felt she had no choice. After all, it was getting late and she had to get Jasmine. "So he took the ignition out from the inside of the (vehicle) and took it to his car, made a key, and the key cranked the vehicle and I paid him and he left."
The key worked, but, she said, only for a while. "One day, I went to go get Jasmine from school again and the car wouldn't crank. Like the key would not go in the ignition," she told Action 9's Jason Stoogenke.
Smith said she finally tracked down her locksmith by phone, but that he refused to make things right. "I just trusted him," she said.
Locksmiths need a license in North Carolina. Locksmiths who aren't licensed can cause damage, rip you off, be uninsured, have criminal backgrounds and be hard to track down later if you have problems. The NC Locksmith Licensing Board hires private investigators to catch people who are breaking the law.
Stoogenke tagged along with the investigators Leroy Everhart and Craig Humphrey on undercover stings between Charlotte and Greensboro. The investigators locked a set of keys in a car on purpose. Then they called locksmiths and waited for the locksmith to come and unlock the car.
The investigators confronted the ones who didn't have a license and, in some cases, reported them to the licensing board. The board can go after them in court.
Most of the locksmiths the investigators called weren't licensed. Some locksmiths were familiar faces, ones investigators said they have warned before.
In one case, Everhart told Stoogenke he'd warned the locksmith multiple times over the years.
Stoogenke: "You've dealt with him how many times before?"
Everhart: "I think this is the fifth time."
Stoogenke: "So this is not an honest mistake. He knows he needs a license by this point."
That same locksmith showed up. He finally had a locksmith license, but investigators said it was a bogus one. "We know you're not licensed. You know you're not licensed," Everhart told him. "You just took money for a service that you're not licensed to do." Investigators checked the license number and told the locksmith, "This right here does not come back to you. It comes back to somebody over in the middle of the state."
Stoogenke asked the locksmith why he didn't have a real license. The locksmith said Google told him it was OK. Stoogenke told him it's not up to Google; it's up to the state, to the licensing board. But the locksmith brought up Google again.
In another case, Stoogenke asked a different locksmith multiple times why he didn't have a license, but that locksmith didn't answer, got in his car, and drove off.
- Make sure the locksmith you hire is licensed. It's easy to find out who is and who isn't here.
- If you have time, go a step further. Search the person's name online. Check reviews. You can do that on the Better Business Bureau website, for example.
- Pay with a credit card. That way, if there's a problem, you have more recourse. In fact, Smith paid with a credit card. Stoogenke told her to dispute the $279 charge, and it worked. The credit card company isn't holding her responsible for the charge.
Want to be a locksmith? Here's how to get a license.
Locksmiths don't need a license in South Carolina. Lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to change that.
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