4 Things We Learned About Fake Locksmith Scammers Lurking Online

The moment you realize you’re locked out of your car or your home is never a good one. But now that everyone is armed with a smartphone, it’s an easy thing to search for a local locksmith on Google and have someone show up to the rescue. But not every listing out there is tied to a legitimate business, as scammy fake locksmith companies are hiding in plain sight, waiting to slam customers with pricy bills for their services.

The New York Times has an eye-opening, in-depth report on the business of scammy locksmith listings that result in customers paying exorbitant sums to get back into their homes and cars. The scam involves listings for “local” business that, in reality, are companies that send out poorly trained subcontractors who do their best to charge customers way beyond what they should be paying.

The story is worth reading in its entirety, but we pulled out a few things from the piece that we found particularly interesting.

1. Lead generators are masters of the bait-and-switch: Some companies listed in Google’s results in the area reserved for local services companies are actually call centers, that may be out of state or even in a different country. These businesses are known as lead generators, or lead gens, that have tricked Google into displaying them as physical stores in their neighborhoods, when in reality, they’re ghosts. Customers get a quote for around $35-$90, but when the subcontractors show up, they often demand much more money for their services, sometimes all in cash. This kind of operation is one of the fastest-growing sources of consumer complaints, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

2. Those ads for $19 locksmith services are probably too good to be true: Locksmith search results will vary depending where you live, but the NYT specifically calls out ads that dominate AdWords, Google’s paid advertising platform.

“Nearly all of those ads promise ‘$19 service,’ or thereabouts, a suspiciously low sum, given that ‘locksmith’-related ads cost about $30 or so per click, depending on the area,” the NYT notes.

We came across one such paid advertisement after searching for “locksmith” from Brooklyn, for example, though we have not investigated its authenticity.

3. There are lead gen hunters on the case: Some people are fighting back as best they can, including a former DHL driver who started correcting edits made to Google Maps via the company’s Map Maker tool after finding mistakes along his former route. He’s a volunteer known as a Mapper, who propose and approve edits voluntarily, with help from Google. Once he discovered locksmith spam, he started spending 70 hours a week deleting it from Maps.

“It was like a video game except it had a moral element to it,” he told the NYT. “At the end of the day, I’d have wiped out 1,000 locations and I would think, that’s 1,000 phone calls that didn’t get made, 1,000 consumers who didn’t get scammed. I felt like Superman.”

4. Critics say Google isn’t doing enough to fight the problem: While the lead-gen operations themselves are the ultimate villain, some in the industry are pointing the finger squarely at Google, saying the tech company isn’t doing enough to fight the spread of locksmith spam.

“Google has been subpar on this,” Danny Sullivan, a founding editor of the website Search Engine Land told the NYT. “When problems arise, they kind of deal with them as they pop up, but they don’t correct systemic flaws that are out there.”

The avenging Mapper/former DHL driver agrees, saying that fighting spam is “boring” for Google, adding that the company would rather have its software coders working on cool products or solving the most interesting problems. He was eventually fired from his non-paying Mapper job when he tried to call Google’s attention to the locksmith spam problem by inserting a fake business into a map and highlighting it on a Mappers’ forum.

Google says it’s fighting the good fight, while acknowledging that it’s not easy.

“We’re in a constant arms race with local business spammers who, unfortunately, use all sorts of tricks to try to game our system and who’ve been a thorn in the Internet’s side for over a decade,” a Google spokesman told the NYT. “As spammers change their techniques, we’re continually working on new, better ways to keep them off Google Search and Maps. There’s work to do, and we want to keep doing better.”

Fake Online Locksmiths May Be Out to Pick Your Pocket, Too [New York Times]