By Ginger Allen

NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – It happens in an instant. The door slams shut. You panic and look around. Your keys are not in your pocket, not in your purse, not anywhere around. And then you realize you have locked them inside your car or house.

What’s the first thing you do? If you can’t find your husband, wife, roommate or a neighbor with a key, you probably search “locksmith” on your cell phone or the nearest computer.

But, what the CBS 11 I-Team has learned could cause you more trouble.

You think you’re calling a licensed locksmith. The number appeared on the first page of a search engine. Or, it may be the number given by an operator when you called 411. But who shows up at your door is anybody’s best guess.

The Associated Locksmiths of America, the national trade organization, says people acting as locksmiths have been showing up at doors all across the country. They often tell you the service will cost $15, but when they complete the job some people report bills of more than $1,000.

We wanted to see how common the problem is in North Texas so CBS 11 set up undercover cameras around a house in Hurst.

John Arnold, a licensed locksmith on the board of the Associated Locksmiths of America, helped us. His crew installed what he described as a very “simple, basic” lock on the front door. Arnold then picked the lock several times showing us how easily the door could be opened. It took Arnold less than two-minutes to pick the lock each time.

Texas law requires locksmith companies to be licensed by the Department of Public Safety. Locksmiths, unlocking your home, must carry a security card on them at all times. The license verifies the locksmith has undergone a state background check.

Arnold said the laws are there to protect consumers. “Are you going to trust these people with access to your house, your car, your family?” he questioned.

CBS 11 searched the keywords “locksmiths Hurst” online and called one of the first companies that popped up. The advertisement read: 15-minutes, $15.

Within an hour, a man arrived in an older model, unmarked maroon car. He walked to the front door of the house. An I-Team producer, who did not have the keys to the home, asked him, “Are you the locksmith?” The man answered, “Yes.”

He told our producer that this was a very difficult lock and was one he had not seen. He tried hard to pick it but that did not work. Next, he returned to his car and came back carrying a power tool. He drilled two large holes in the lock and the door opened.

The man told the CBS 11 producer she owed him $150. But in addition to the lock now being destroyed, the man left a large scratch on the door where he damaged it.

Next, he asked our producer if she wanted the lock replaced. He explained he’d have to go to a store to buy a lock. This would have obviously cost more money.

At this point, the I-Team approached the man with cameras rolling. CBS 11 I-Team Investigator Ginger Allen asked, “Sir, can we talk to you just a minute?”

Taken very off guard, he answered, “Yeah.”

“Do you have your license on you? Can I see it?” Allen asked.

He scrambled to grab his tools and agreed to find his license. Then he said we would have to contact his company, but he would not give us the name of the company.

“If you would give me your name and license number, I would know the public is safe,” asked Allen.

She continued to ask questions that he would not answer. “Why won’t you give me your last name, so I can look up who you are?”

The man responded, “I don’t have to talk with you.”

He made several phone calls and promised that someone from his company would call and verify his name and license. He never explained to Allen why he did not have his security license with him. He would only say that his first name was “Robert” and refused to give us his last name.

He did ask to see Allen’s “license” at one point. “Mine?” she asked. “You want to see my license? Well here are my identification and my company – where’s yours?” said Allen pointing at the CBS 11 flag on the microphone.

“Robert” never gave any answers. He never showed us a license and CBS 11 never heard from his company.

According to the Associated Locksmiths of America, the majority of the locksmith ads on the first page of most search engines are not legitimate. Arnold says the Association has been investigating the problem for nearly a decade. He said there is a ring of people, out-of-state or overseas, who have mastered a way to create sophisticated-looking websites that will pop up immediately when you are desperately looking for a locksmith in your area.

Here’s what you need to know:

When calling a locksmith business, ask for the license number of the company and the physical address where the business is located.

When a locksmith arrives at your home, ask to see his/her security card or license. Most legitimate companies will also require their employees to drive a company vehicle or wear clothing that identifies the business.

You can also verify license numbers at The Texas Department of Public Safety website.

The Associated Locksmiths of America has also created a 10-point locksmith checklist for detecting a locksmith company that may be engaging in this scheme. Click here to check it out.

The best advice may be to think ahead. Put the number of a local locksmith in your phone now. Click here to get the ALOA’s listings.

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