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Call Kurtis Investigates: The Dark Side of the Locksmith Industry

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) -- When locked out and helpless, a fast and fair locksmith can be invaluable -- though someone you'll hopefully never need again.

But the one-time-service nature of locksmiths has cast new shadows onto the centuries-old industry in recent years, as a Call Kurtis undercover investigation has learned.

The investigation exposes a darker side of the locksmith industry that reputable and long-established locksmiths characterize as a major threat to their business -- and to vulnerable customers desperate to get back into their homes.

Setting up undercover stings in two homes with more than a dozen cameras, Call Kurtis watched locksmith companies in action.

Locked Out

At 92 years old, Elizabeth Cadway of Sacramento hasn't lost a bit of her trademark feistiness -- or the lifelong smoking habit she admits she doesn't want to kick.

"At this age, I'm not giving up cigarettes," she said. "What can they do to me now?"

Cadway insists the locksmith she called jacked up the price of a simple lock picking to $180 -- a price he said he'd charge if he had to drill out the lock, she said.

"He never drilled the lock," she said. "I watched him."

"I figured I'm getting ripped off here," she said.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is way more than he quoted me," said Pam Warfield of Sacramento of her experience with 24/7 Locksmith Services.

When Pam Warfield of Sacramento locked herself out of her apartment, she said the telephone quote of $50 multiplied to $300 once the work was done.

"You feel taken advantage of," she said.

And Dudley Dufort of Rio Linda said he paid at least three times as much as he should have to rekey his home after a burglary.

"We paid $952," he said. "They're ripping people off."

Call Kurtis found others complaining about similar locksmith experiences -- and decided to hire some locksmiths for an undercover sting.

Setting Up Our Sting

Using two houses in two areas of Sacramento County and two undercover homeowners, Call Kurtis wired up a house with hidden cameras.

"I have locked myself out of my house," undercover homeowner Joni tells a locksmith company by phone.

"How soon can you be out?" asks undercover homeowner Luanne.

What the locksmith companies don't know is Call Kurtis asked two veteran locksmiths to demonstrate what it takes to pick the front-door locks we're using.

Bob Danelz of Natomas Lock & Key unlocks the Kwikset Titan-brand deadlock on one house's front door without a problem.

"Boom, in," he said after picking the lock for less than five seconds. "If they can't pick this Kwikset, they're in the wrong business."

Robert Frantz of Jeff's Locksmith picks the deadbolt of our other house almost as quickly.

"This is a real easy lock to get in," he said. "Should be able to get in in five minutes."

During normal hours, both locksmiths charge $65 to $75 for such a job.

But the first locksmith we call refuses to give us an estimate by phone.

Going Undercover

The first locksmith identifies himself as Daniel from 24/7 Locksmith Services. We later learn his full name is Daniel Pinto, BSIS locksmith license 13857.

After checking the lock in person, he tells our undercover homeowner Joni it will cost $160 to pick the deadlock.

"Really?" Joni said. "I've had this done before and it's never been this much money."

Joni relucantly agrees to the work, and in less than two minutes, Pinto's in.

"That was easy," Joni said, before Kurtis Ming asks Pinto about how much he charges.

Our undercover homeowner Luanne calls to arrange a locksmith to unlock the front door of our undercover house.

"Why were you going to charge $160 for such an easy job?" Ming asked the locksmith.

"This is what we charge," Pinto said.

"That's a lot," Ming said.

"I know," the locksmith said.

He said his company sets the prices and he only did the work after Joni agreed on the $160, so we pay him the full amount.

Our second locksmith tested is J&J's of Sacramento, which gives us an estimate of $80 to $90.

"Thank you for coming," our undercover homeowner tells locksmith Lloyd, who picks the lock in about a minute.

"You're amazing," Joni said.

Even more amazing, he charges just $75 -- less than what we were first quoted.

Finally we test our third locksmith, who identifies himself as Mark from 24/7 Locksmith. We later learn he is licensed as Mohannad Mahfouz, BSIS locksmith license 13870.

The operator told our undercover homeowner Luanne prices start at $50, but after two hours of waiting, Mahfouz shows up to tell us it will cost about $185.

"It might be difficult," he said, looking at the lock.

Mahfouz told our undercover homeowner we have a commercial lock -- which we know isn't true -- and he may have to drill.

"Oh, I don't want you to drill it," homeowner Luanne said. "Oh my gosh, my husband will be so angry with me."

She presses him to pick the lock instead.

"So you just can't pick it?" she said.

"I'm going to try, but like I say, it's a commercial," he said.

Mahfouz tries picking the lock for exactly 52 seconds before he begins to drill.

"Do you have to drill it?" Luanne asks immediately.

Mahfouz nods and continues to drill before cameras move in.

The Confrontation

"How's it going," Ming said, opening the door and shaking hands with Mahfouz.

"I'm very good," Mahfouz responded.

Locksmith Mohannad Mahfouz tells consumer investigator Kurtis Ming the $50 rate his company advertises will always end up costing customers much more.

Ming questions him about drilling the lock.

"I can't believe you drilled this lock," he said. "We watched a guy pick this lock in five seconds."

"Basically, we tried for five minutes," Mahfouz said.

"You didn't try for five minutes," Ming said.

"OK," Mahfouz said, explaining that 24/7 Locksmith Services hasn't given him much, and he has been told to call this type of lock a commercial lock.

He also said he would have charged us the same $185 even if he picked it.

"So when we're told it's starting at $50, there's no chance we'll pay $50?" Ming asked.

"No," Mahfouz said.

24/7 Locksmith Services is the same company Dufort and Warfield used.

The Better Business Bureau lists 14 complaints for a company with the same phone number to which 24/7 Locksmith Services responded. Many complain about the company charging high prices for their services.

"They're not being honest at all," Warfield said.

"Shut them down and prosecute them," Dufort said.

The State's Regulation

Call Kurtis pressed the state's Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, which oversees all locksmith licensing, for answers.

"You're the regulatory agency," Ming said. "What are you doing to stop this?"

"When we get complaints, we investigate those complaints," spokesperson Russ Heimerich said.

The Bureau of Security and Investigative Services regulates locksmith companies and employees in California. It received 281 complaints in the past two years, and has cited 17 locksmiths. No locksmith have had their licenses revoked in that time.

Heimerich told Call Kurtis BSIS had received 281 locksmith complaints in the past two years, but Call Kurtis has learned only 17 locksmiths were actually cited, and none had their licenses revoked.

The BSIS said its resources to investigate bad locksmiths are limited.

"We do the best we can with what we've got," he said.

"Do you think you're adequately protecting the public from these guys?" Ming asked.

"I think we always wish we could do more," Heimerich said.

"But you're the regulator," Ming said. "Aren't you responsible for making sure people aren't getting ripped off?"

"We are responsible for doing everything we can with the resources we have," Heimerich said.

The Problem Continues

Cadway is disappointed.

"Nobody tries to help anyone anymore," she said.

Mahfouz installed another lock for us and refused to take money for the job.

He admitted what he and his company have been doing hasn't felt right.

"To be honest with you," he said, "I don't think I'm going to do this job anymore."

Mahfouz said when you open the phone book or look online, several of the companies go to the same call centers, which may be out of state.

He then gets dispatched.

We reached out to 24/7 Locksmith Services which did not immediately return our calls.

Picking a Reputable Locksmith

The California Locksmith Association recommends verifying a locksmith's license before he or she begins any work. The BSIS website allows consumers to check the license of both a locksmith employee and a locksmith company/owner.

In addition, locksmiths should be willing to give you an estimate over the phone. If the work is more than $500, the locksmith must be licensed with the Contractors State License Board as well.

Under the law, locksmiths must include their locksmith license number on all advertisements, so if a locksmith does not include this information, it may be an indication of other problems.

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