About three years ago, Cheryl Delhagen returned to her southeast Las Vegas home to find that thieves had broken a window on her front door, unlocked the deadbolt from the inside and stolen jewelry, her father’s gold watch and a spare key to her house.
It was after 5 p.m., but she wanted a new lock and new keys that night for security’s sake.
Finally, she reached someone who said he would come out. In doing so, she joined a growing number of people nationwide taken advantage of by a locksmith company.
"I asked him about the price," Delhagen said. "He said, ‘Because it’s after hours, we’ll see how it goes.’ I should’ve just said no."
She ended up paying $610 for a new deadbolt and three rekeyed locks, something that should have cost $150 to $250. Then she had to call another locksmith to fix what the first locksmith had done.
"He didn’t do a very good job," Delhagen said. "I knew I got skunked."
Delhagen let the matter go, and the name of the business she used couldn’t be confirmed.
But local locksmiths point to it as an example of something that has happened in other states that has come to Southern Nevada: aggressive, even predatory, business practices by locksmiths who often aren’t licensed, use fake addresses and route calls through out-of-state operators.
The city of Las Vegas’ business licensing department is investigating locksmith licensing. A city spokeswoman declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
"This is a problem that’s been around for a while now, and it’s unfortunate that it continues," said Alison Southwick, spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the parent group to local Better Business Bureaus. "Some states there’s hardly any oversight at all. That means in some states it’s hard to go after these guys."
Nevada has some oversight. Locksmiths must get a sheriff’s work card. In Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Clark County, owners of a locksmith business must pass a background check to receive a business license, because locksmiths have the means to gain access to almost any car, residence or business.
Break-ins are not the reported problem. What’s worrisome to the industry and local officials are a number of operators who have moved into the area and simply ignored those requirements, according to local locksmiths who have worked in Southern Nevada for many years. As has happened in other states, those companies game the phone listings and search engines so they’re at the top of the list.
The most frequent complaint from consumers is that they are quoted a low rate over the phone to unlock a car or a house. When the locksmith shows up, the fee ends up being doubled or tripled.
The Southern Nevada Better Business Bureau, which tracks complaints against businesses and certifies good ones, has logged 23 complaints about locksmiths in the last three years, including price complaints, defective products and repair services that caused more damage.
Ten of those have been resolved, 10 have received no response, and in the remaining ones the customer did not accept a resolution offer from the business.
"We don’t get a lot," said Rhonda Mettler of the Southern Nevada Better Business Bureau. "The ones that we do, we really can’t find. Most of them are mobile. When you call a company and say, ‘What’s your address?’, they say, ‘Oh, we don’t have an address.’"
Of those that do list addresses, many are fake, sometimes ludicrously so.
If listings in the phone book and online are to be believed, for example, there are locksmiths located inside or next to the Flamingo, the Tropicana, Paris Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood and The Mirage.
The back half of the city of Henderson’s water treatment plant houses a locksmith shop, according to directory listings. So does Las Vegas City Hall.
One company’s location, when plotted on Google Maps, showed up on a McCarran International Airport runway.
It’s maddening to local locksmiths who take the time to get licensed in all Southern Nevada jurisdictions and abide by the rules, which is expensive, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.
They’re also frustrated that the situation hasn’t changed, despite pleas to local and state government agencies.
"Here I am, a law-abiding citizen who takes the time to be licensed in Las Vegas, and you’re not going to police them?" said Debbie Mizrahi, who has operated Access Lock and Safe with her husband, Josef, since 1995. "I’ve been fighting this war for three years, and I’m at the end of my rope here."
She and two other locksmith operators produced letters they wrote to the Nevada attorney general’s office in 2006. Edie Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the office, said the only complaint she could find was one from Carson City, which was referred to the Sheriff’s Department there.
The Nevada Consumer Affairs Division, a state agency that was assigned to address complaints like these, has been shut down because of budget cuts. The agency filed complaints by business name, not business type, a spokeswoman said, and couldn’t provide locksmith statistics.
Other states have had some success addressing the problem.
In Colorado, the attorney general’s office went after a company called Basad Inc. and its owners, Peleg Forman, Batia Forman and Michael Biton, after investigating the locksmith company for deceptive trade practices.
"They were promised cheap locksmiths, $55, and that they’d be there in less than an hour," spokesman Mike Saccone said.
The customers were hit with additional charges and told the $55 was just a "service fee," and frequently had to endure lengthy waits, he said.
The company settled for $100,000, which will be used to reimburse customers, and must disclose all charges customers will be assessed. Calls to the company are now recorded to ensure compliance, he said.
"This does send a message to companies that we will not tolerate this, and we will come after them," Saccone said.
In Illinois, state regulators in 2006 suspended the licenses of two locksmith companies after finding that they had used unlicensed personnel, overcharged customers, set up 26 dummy business names and addresses, and had local phone numbers that forwarded to a call center in New York, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, other locksmiths report a drop in business and the headaches of being associated with a trade they feel is being tarred by shady operators.
"From last year alone, I’m down over 60 percent," said Gene Altobella, owner of Gene’s Locksmith and head of the Nevada Professional Locksmith Association. "Some of that’s the economy. I’m not disputing that. But something’s not right.
"I don’t know how to eliminate these guys. … I’ve been in business since 1979. And I’m not leaving."
Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate @reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.