Saturday, June 20, 2009

Choosing A Locksmith: The Facts Laid Out Straight From An Insider

After poring over multiple journalists' advice on how to choose a locksmith, I got a little tired of the same five or six points reiterated in every article. The authors had obviously just yoinked copy off someone else's publication or press release. Some even spouted prejudiced nonsense: One writer advised against finding a locksmith through internet searches, because "any fool" can buy a web domain for $1.99. That may be true, but any fool can also buy a listing in 411 for $7, and any fool can buy an ad in the yellow pages for $30.

Finding a good locksmith can be a little more time-consuming than you might be used to--DO NOT just look in the phone book for a "respectable looking/big" advertisement. That route of looking is not just old fashioned, it is often dangerous and much more expensive than finding someone who is actually reputable. If you're too busy to read the rest of this article, remember these main tips:
  1. Ask your people. Who have friends and family used in the past?
  2. ALOA Members are a good bet because to be a member, Locksmiths need a LOT of qualifications
  3. Yelp! Reviews. Do not trust other review sites. Not even Google, Yahoo, nor MSN. They are not as well moderated as Yelp.
  4. Bonded & Insured is a must (Hawaii doens't require Licensure)
  5. Do not go for the company with the nicest, biggest, swankiest ads. Contrary to what you may have learned as a kid, these are the locksmiths to avoid! They are most likely to overcharge, and most likely to send an unqualified technician to the job. They rely on the prestige of their ads, not on lasting reputation with consumers.

I'd like to clarify some things that those not in the business may not realize:
  1. ALOA membership is a good indicator of a good locksmith. Associated Locksmiths of America is serious about screening their members. ALOA members undergo a three-month waiting period before becoming full members. They are background checked by the FBI and undergo criminal background investigation. Hawaii locksmiths are required to fly to the mainland to complete ALOA certification courses. ALOA members must be vouched for by a current ALOA member and at least two other locksmith industry professionals. They must provide character references. They also must have been in business for at least two years before becoming a member. Why do locksmiths invest all these resources and go through all this hassle? So you, the consumer, can check them out on and rest a little easier when you see they are ALOA members. You can trust that they have developed a network of connections and invested a lot in their locskmith business and locksmith reputation. They won't just appear, rip you off, and disappear. They are not people who ordered a few locksmith tools on eBay and call themselves qualified to open your car. I can say that all ALOA members in Hawaii are respectable, competent locksmiths. It's worth it to look them up.
  2. You can't necessarily judge a lockmsith by his certifications or claims of experience. Just because they passed a course certifying them as a "Certified Locksmith" or "Journeyman Locksmith" doesn't mean that they're a competent locksmith. It just means they took a course, maybe online, maybe on the mainland, and passed a test. In Hawaii, certification isn't necessary to be in business. Don't be dazzled by a certificate alone. How does one obtain a locksmith certificate? To become a "Certified Locksmith" from ALOA, one needs to take a 5-day, 40-hour course and pass the final exam. The locksmith must be physically present in the class, which means he has gone through the effort of going to the mainland (locksmith training is not offered in Hawaii). Some certification programs also offer a certificate completely online. You can buy the course for a few hundred dollars and receive a diploma without hands-on learning experience.
  3. You can't necessarily judge a locksmith by his lack of a physical store. Too many advice givers put too much merit in the presence of a physical store. In Hawaii, the density of locksmiths is high, and there is a lot of competition. It is infeasible for every good locksmith to have a shop. There simply isn't enough demand. Many perfectly reliable locksmiths do good business out of a van or "mobile workshop."
  4. You can't judge a locksmith by the size of his ad in the phonebook, the fanciness of his website, or the "largeness" of his presence. I'm not naming any names, but most, if not all of the locksmith companies who spend big advertising dollars in Hawaii are not based in Hawaii. They buy a lot of telephone numbers and list them at fake addresses around the island, and they forward them to a call center in New York or Los Angeles. They have subcontractors here in Hawaii who work out of their own vehicles and are neither bonded nor insured. Then, they advertise unbeatable rates. Unsuspecting consumers are fooled by the prestige large advertisements and a seemingly big presence. What you don't know is how the locksmith company is generating all that revenue. They advertise a low rate, then they quote you on the phone, "Yes, the service starts at $29, but it depends on your specific lock and the labor involved. We won't know a firm price until we get there." When the subcontractor actually gets down to billing you, the bill is usually for at least $150. He only gets to keep half of it. And that is how the big companies make their profits. They prey on one-time customers who call the first ad they see, thinking the company must be good if it can afford such a big advertisement.
  5. Looking in a directory (phone book, 411, search engine) might not be a good idea, period. If you must pick blindly, do it in an educated manner. Read consumer reviews and check the locksmith's qualifications. Like I said earlier, it's much easier than you think to get listed in 411, google, and yes, the yellow pages. Especially among the pre-computer generation, the phone book is looked upon as a good source for picking a business out of a hat. There is something weighty about something made out of real paper. The drawbacks to a physical phone book are that you get no feedback from other consumers. Online review sites like Yelp are the way to remedy that. You might also want to check with the Better Business Burearu or ALOA before doing business.
  6. Make sure your locksmith is properly licensed, bonded, and insured to protect yourself. You never know when something might go wrong with the job. It might be embarassing to ask, but ASK. And ask BEFORE you let a locksmith perform any work on your home. I have seen cases where a subcontractor for one of the "big ad" companies (see #4, above) was called to a lockout in a Honolulu condo.. When he got there, he took one look at the lock and said, "I'm going to have to drill it. This lock is unpickable. You will also need to buy a new lock". . . and pay for installation, extra drilling fees, and labor charges to remove the old lock . . . Halfway through the drilling, his drill ran out of batteries. He left the scene to get more batteries, and did not return for a long time.. That's when the client called The Key Guy. When we arrived, our locksmith took a look at the lock and said it was one of the easiest types to pick. An experienced locksmith would never drill it. We ended up having to drill the rest of the way through the lock and replace it, which is much more expensive than just picking it. Had the same situation happend with a reputable locksmith, the client could have called the company and claimed for damages. As it was, he couldn't even get back in contact with the phony locksmith no matter how many times he called.
  7. Ask real live people you know who they've used in the past. I realize that locksmith services are used rather infrequently, and that none of your friends nor family may have a locksmith referral for you. If that is the case, try calling your realtor or building manager. These individuals work with locksmiths more often than most, and will probably have a good one that they have a relationiship with. If that route fails, check reviews online. Just make sure to check reputable review sites. Beware, because Google, Yahoo, and MSN reviews are fraught with phony reviews from company owners trying to make themselves look good. More trustworthy sources of reviews are Yelp and AngiesList.
  8. Check reviews. Use the internet to your advantage. It's true that search engines are flooded with phony and unscrupulous locksmith listings with equally phony reviews, but there are clues that you can and should pick up on. When reading reviews, look at the grammar mistakes, writing style, and length of each review. Are they similar? Are all the reviews written by users who created an account for the sole purpose of reviewing this particular locksmith? Look at the reviewer's other reviews and view their profile to find out. Not many people will go through the trouble to go online and spend the time writing a review for a locksmith company, so be very wary. It takes time, but it's worth the effort to save hundreds of dollars, right? Google Maps Reviews, Yahoo Local Reviews, MSN Reviews, and the like are especially laden with fake reviews. As a scourer of locksmith reviews, I find Yelp! to be the most well-administrated review website around. Yelp seems to monitor and delete fraudulent reviews better than most.

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