SAN ANTONIO – When Crystal locked her keys in her SUV late one Friday night, she did a quick Google search of the Internet to find a locksmith. The ad that caught her eye touted cheap service.
"It was advertising $10 service to come out," she said. "That's what really got me."
It got her, alright. She wound up with a jacked-up bill she never saw coming.
When she called the locksmith, Crystal said she was told the price would be $10 to come out and another $45 to open her car.
"The technician came out and stated my car was too new and would need a special tool for it," she said. "And it cost $149."
In a desperate bind, she agreed, and he unlocked her vehicle. Then she got the bill: A total $210.
"I was just shocked," she said.
She's hardly alone.
The Texas Attorney General, Department of Public Safety and Better Business Bureau have fielded numerous complaints of overcharging locksmiths.
"This is the key that cost me $300," said Angel Trevino, dangling a new key to her Honda.
When she misplaced her keys, a neighbor gave her a phone number to a locksmith she had looked up.
When the technician arrived, Trevino said he told her it would cost $50 to unlock her car and $300 for a new key.
"I said, 'It's not a Cadillac. It's a Honda Accord.' I said, 'Why are you going to charge me something like that?' He goes, 'Even for the Cadillac we charge $800," Trevino recalled.
Stories like that are frustrating to Jim Hetchler, former president of the Texas Locksmith Association and San Antonio Locksmith Association.
The organizations warn that many online ads boasting super-low service call prices lead to unscrupulous locksmiths who operate shell companies with multiple names, phone numbers and even bogus addresses.
"When you pick up that phone, if you pick something out of the air, or Google, you have no idea who you are calling," Hetchler said. "You have no idea who is going to show up."
After hearing consumer complaints, the Defenders went undercover to see what a few locksmiths would charge to unlock their SUV.
"Our service call is $10 and the labor is $20 and up, depending on the type of the lock, and our tech will be there in 15 to 20 minutes," the first dispatcher told the undercover producer who called.
Forty-five minutes later, the technician arrived in an unmarked vehicle.
As he looked at the vehicle, the producer asked how much it was going to cost.
"Exactly?" the tech answered. "It's on there," referring to a receipt which read $150.
As the tech was explaining to the undercover producer that her insurance may cover it, the KSAT Defenders confronted him to ask about the $150 charge.
He snatched the receipt and took off, refusing to answer any questions.
Later calls to the company were not returned.
The second locksmith company quoted $15 for the service call and $35 and up for the labor.
When the technician arrived, he said an airbag was needed to open the lock. When asked about price, he said it would be about $75 on top of the service call.
Days later, the technician and the dispatcher called the price "fair."
But it was double what the third company charged. That dispatcher said the cost would be a flat fee of $44.95 and was the only one to ask what type of car we had.
The locksmith was prompt and popped the lock for the price quoted. He did use an air wedge, but said it is a common tool, not a special one.
To protect those in need from surprise billing, Hetchler recommends consumers find a reputable locksmith before they actually need one and keep the phone number in their contacts.
And, if one quotes a price with the words, "and up," consumer advocates say be skeptical and call another.
To find a reputable locksmith, Hetchler suggested checking the Associated Locksmiths of America website.
Locksmiths are required to be licensed by the state and are required to carry a pocket card showing that. All of the companies called by the KSAT Defenders are licensed.
However, state law does not require a license to unlock vehicles.
Companies that use the word locksmith in their name or use the word locksmith in their advertising do need to be licensed.