While most of us are aware of contractor scam and mechanic scams where someone charges you for work you never authorized or they perform shoddy work and then disappear, we just heard about a new scam that could hit anyone in any city.
An article in The New York Times entitled, Picking the Lock of Google’s Search details a problem in Seattle where legitimate locksmith services are getting pushed out of Google search results by scam companies using phony addresses who overcharge customers who call in emergency situations. According to the article, many of these companies are lead generation services who get paid a fee for taking the emergency call and then sending the information to other companies who perform the services.
The problem in Seattle is so widespread that these companies are dominating Google search results, which is a main driver for business. They also dominate Google Places listings. Google Places listings are the web sites with the little red balloons next to their listing that reference balloons on a map in the right column. In order to show up in Google Places, a company must have a local address. According to the research performed by companies cited in the article, many of these companies are using phony addresses. Some are using addresses for government offices.
One scam was pulled on a lady who was quoted $49 to open a lock, but when the rep arrived, he drilled out the lock and charged her $400. She then needed to call another locksmith to have the lock replaced.
We found numerous alerts about locksmith scams from around the country, which means that this is a very common and profitable scam. The following news video exposes the problem in San Francisco and other parts of the country.
How Do You Avoid Becoming a Victim of Locksmith Scams?
This advice would apply to any company that you may call for emergency services.
The best advice is to use a company that a friend or neighbor has used and that you know is legitimate. This would take the guesswork out of the choice. It still does not guarantee that you will not be overcharged, but at least the company should be legitimate.
Check to see if the company is listed in your local phone book. Not all companies are listed in the Yellow Pages, because these are paid listings. Be aware that any dishonest company can set up a phony locksmith company in the phone book.
If your geographic area requires contractor licenses, the legitimate contractors will be listed on a local government web site. If your predicament occurs on a weekday during normal business hours, there will likely be a phone number for the local government licensing office that you can call.
It would be wise to search the web to see if others have reported problems with the company. The Better Business Bureau site would be once source to check. You can also do a search in Google for the company name. Here is a tip for searching Google for a company name. Make sure that you spell the name correctly and surround the words in the Google search box with quotes. This performs a “phrase match” that will return all of the web pages that use that exact company name. You should find both the company’s web site and any reports of either good or dishonest services performed by the company. Make sure that you are looking are reviews for the company in your area, because many of the same company names are used by other companies in different geographic locations.
There are several online directories that may provide additional verification, although the more sophisticated scammers may have penetrated these, as well. A couple of legitimate online directories for looking up businesses are Switchboard.com and WhitePages.com.
One final tip is to get an estimate for services on the phone and then request a written verification of that estimate when the service rep arrives. That should help avoid problems where a lead generation service gives you a low-ball quote to secure the service call with out ever conveying that information to the company who provides the service.