I-Team: Police Breaking Up Phony LocksmithsUpdated: Aug 14, 2009 5:28 PM
Just look at the phone book or online and you'll see hundreds of fly-by-night locksmith outfits using phony names and bogus addresses to fleece millions of dollars each year out of locals and tourists.
The scam emanates from New York and Florida and appears to be a highly organized criminal enterprise that flaunts local laws and has been known to use threats and intimidation against customers who are invariably in vulnerable situations.
An undercover police officer posing as a shopper locked out of car calls a company named Right On Time Locksmith. She is routed to another company, S and S Locksmith. When help arrives 15 minutes later in an unmarked van, the man says he works for a 3rd company, Mega-Locksmith.
The $30 fee mentioned on the phone gets bumped. "$50 bucks," says "locksmith" Eli Levy on hidden camera. I just say $50. Other companies are charging over $100 to open doors."
As soon as they hear a price mentioned, detectives who've been monitoring the exchange move in. Levy is an Israeli national and says this is his second day on the job. He has no business license, work card, or a valid driver's license.
He says he doesn't know how the three companies are linked and also says he doesn't need a business license. There's a very simple reason why the law requires a criminal background check for anyone working as a locksmith. Joe Esposito owned liberty lock for 29 years. "Locksmiths have the keys and the knowledge and the expertise to basically break into anybody else's house. A locksmith is basically a licensed burglar," he said.
Esposito and other legitimate locksmiths are appalled by the invasion of Las Vegas and other large cities by shady, unlicensed locksmith operators who are little more than a phone number. They take out huge ads in the Yellow Pages, have dozens of numbers under single listings, and essentially take over the market.
There are no background checks or work cards for the employees. Taxes aren't paid and the whole operation seems to be routed back to a central dispatch in New York. "It's millions of dollars. It's big. That's why they are doing it," said Esposito.
Even Metro doesn't know who owns these companies. "No not yet. It's definitely big. It almost seems like it's a human trafficking deal. You know, ‘Come here, we're going to set you up in these, work when we say, do what we say,'" said Sgt. Lenny LaRusso with Metro's Privileged License Team.
Sgt. LaRusso's team has turned up the heat in recent months, using stings to send a message and to gather information. Two of the drivers busted Tuesday afternoon were sent out by the same dispatcher to the same location.
Like Ely Levy, Sal is also from Israel. "I'm a sick person, sir. I work part time. I have to eat. I'm not stealing," he said.
But it has all the markings of a scam. The most common complaint is that the locksmiths quote one price on the phone, and then something else in person.
Cheryl Delhagen needed new locks after her home was burglarized -- a job that should have cost $150. "Finally at the end he presented me with a bill for $610," she said.
Customers say if they balk at paying, locksmiths threaten them or refuse to leave. Consumers have nowhere to go to complain.
LaRusso's team says few, if any, of the companies have actual offices. Search Google for Las Vegas Locksmiths and hundreds pop up, but the addresses are bogus. They're actually the addresses of fast food joints, Caesars Forum Shops, the Mandalay Events Center, or McCarran Airport. The office that sent out two of the men who were busted is, in fact, a locksmith shop but it's been closed down for many months.
One of the bogus companies listed the address of its office and it seemed very familiar to our I-Teamproducer Ian Russell. That's because it is his home address. He assures us there is no locksmith operation in his apartment.
Esposito says he's appealed to the phone company to at least ask for a business license before listing a locksmith company. He was rebuffed every time. "These people are very much taking advantage of the community and the phone company is basically assisting them in doing this," he said.
So how can you figure out which company is legit? Ask for advice from AAA, your insurance company, and know the signs of a scam.