Sunday, January 25, 2009

Are you hiring a professional, a middleman or perhaps even a scammer?

Whether you "let your fingers do the walking" through any yellow page directory or you do an internet search for locksmiths or safe and vault opening and repairing services, there's a very good chance that a scam artist or boiler room operator is who will show up at your door. These operators prey on the emergency needs of unsuspecting consumers.

Newspaper and TV news stories all over the country abound describing horror stories of consumers being ripped off, over charged or otherwise defrauded by phony locksmith companies. These operators advertise in local yellow pages and on the internet under many names, sometimes using the actual names of local, legitimate businesses to dupe consumers into believing they are hiring these legitimate businesses to solve their home, car or safe & vault lockout problems.

The problem:
Consumers, inconvenienced by a lockout of their home, car or safe are desperate. Maybe they need to get to work or a medical appointment and they locked the keys in the car. Maybe they are getting ready to go on vacation and their passport is locked in the safe for which they have lost or forgotten the combination. Maybe they went out for the paper and the dog pushed the door closed behind them. Maybe they lost their keys somewhere and in addition to being locked out, they also need to get the locks changed to prevent whoever finds them from using them. Whatever mishap caused the problem, it's an inconvenient situation and people want to solve the problem as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. They suspend their normal skepticism for the sake of expediency and that's when they open the door to being scammed.

How the scam works:
A boiler room operation works by advertising and placing listings in yellow pages or on internet search engines. They offer emergency service and promise fast service at discount prices. When you call, the person answering the phone may be in another city or state. They may be answering the phone from a workroom in a prison in Utah or a warehouse in Newark, NJ or Las Vegas Nevada. The first thing they ask will be your phone number and your location. If you pay attention and listen, you may hear other operators talking in the background asking the same questions of other callers.

When the dispatcher/operator has all of your information, they say that they will contact their closest technician, locksmith, etc. and dispatch them to your location. When asked, they will quote a charge, usually less than $50 for the "service" and ask how you will be paying. They will insist on getting your credit card information. You say to yourself: "Wow, $50, that's very reasonable!"

What happens next isn't normal, usual or legitimate! In the best case scenario, the dispatcher will have a list of people in your area that they may or may not have dealt with before. They don't know if they are licensed, bonded or insured, only that they answered the phone. Maybe it's a real locksmith or safeman, maybe not! The dispatcher gives them your contact information and often your credit card information. Sometimes, the dispatcher may not have anyone in your area to "refer" the call to, and sometimes they do. If they do, and the person who actually shows up at your door can do the requested work, they will get your permission to perform the service. They will also explain that the "work" needs to be paid for, either in advance or immediately, preferably in cash. If you can't pay in cash, that's where the credit card information comes in. You complain that the charges were supposed to only be $50. "Sorry, you'll have to talk to my dispatcher aout that" will be the reply. You're still locked out, so you agree to the extra charges.

Sometimes the technician will say that the dispatcher made an error and that they can't do the work (a safe opening instead of a car lockout, for instance), but they have to charge a minimum "show up" or "trip charge" fee, but the they will make it right with the dispatcher.

In the worst case scenario, you may hang up thinking that help is on the way. The dispatcher will often not be able to find a person to refer your call to, especially if you live outside a metropolitan area or if it is in the middle of the night. You may wait for hours. Calling back, you will explain everything again and the person on the phone will offer to "call you back when they know the technician is on the way".

The corporate scam:
There's also a business version of this scam. The scammers are known as "National Service Providers". They target chain stores, restaurants, any businesses that have multiple outlets or branches, often in different areas or even in different states. Essentially, the NSP offers dispatching and consolidated billing for services commonly used by these chains. HVAC, refrigeration, plumbing, electrical, window and glass, locksmiths and safemen. They have a sales force who contact the chains offering one-stop shopping for these "services" at pre-negotiated, discount fees with easy billing. Basically, this kind of outfit consists of a toll-free number, the sales force, "customer service agents" or CSAs (dispatchers) and a billing department. They do not have the required business license or contractor's license to do business in local chain store's area and are not required to provide insurance or bonding, but there they are, none the less. These requirements are to be met by their sub-contractors, i.e. the local firms or individuals who actually "provide the services". Although the NSPs represent themselves as being legitimate service providers, aren't they nothing more than middlemen? They try, but frequently fail miserably, but because corporate departments don't always coordinate, especially between the accounts payable department and property/store management departments, one doesn't know what's going on with the other until long after the contract has expired. Often, delays in providing services, quality assurance problems, or additional charges are explained as "unusual circumstances" and are written into the contracts that way. In other words, the discounted prices are not applicable because of the "unusual circumstances". These companies frequently operate under lots of different names and may use a different name with every contract.

A typical NSP scenario:
Let's say you're the manager of a fast food restaurant in Stockton, California. You need to have the locks re-keyed and the combination of the safe changed because of employee turnover. You call or fax a work order request to the chain's security or loss prevention department or maybe your chain requires that you call the NSP's toll-free number, directly. You talk to the CSA (Customer Service Agent) who is located in an office in indiana. You give him the work order number and tell him what you want done. He says "no problem, we'll have our technician call you back to make the appointment."

Although there is no cash or credit card information being exchanged, what happens next resembles what happened with the boiler room operation I described in the previous example: the customer service agent puts on his dispatcher's hat and starts calling contacts in your area to try to connect you with a "real" service provider to take care of your needs. Again, how successful he is depends on the number of service contacts that he has on file in your area. A service contact is merely a company who has agreed to service the NSP's clients and bill the NSP instead of the store. If there are none of the needed contacts on file, the NSP's CSA starts calling providers listed in the yellow pages and on the internet. Does the CSA check references, licensing, bonding or insurance requirements for the firms he's contacting? He just wants to get this particular service request off his plate so he can move on to the next. Do you see where I'm going with this?

You as the local manager could have called in a local company yourself, but that option is no longer available to you because of corporate policy to use the services of the NSP. The NSP is simply a broker of services, not the provider, as the name implies. They rely on actual providers in your local area to service your needs. What sounded like an efficient system starts looking like a service nightmare. Delays, poor quality, "loss prevention incidents" and other failures of the system start showing up. The dispatcher may not have a local provider, so now he's trolling the yellow pages in ever-widening areas trying to find one who will take this call of his plate. When two days have passed, he starts getting desperate. He may go with an individual who he knows isn't qualified.

On the other hand, maybe the firm that the NSP uses in your area is the same firm that was providing these services to your store before the NSP got involved, only now he's billing the NSP at discounted rates and with charge limits imposed that are known as NTEs. He agrees to this because he wants to keep his techs busy and YOU are no longer calling him, directly. He still needs to maintain his license, insurance and bonding as well as the other cost of doing business, i.e. rolling stock, payroll, parts and supplies, etc., but he's no longer getting full price for his services. How likely is he to put your needs ahead of his "real customers", many of which he has a history with and may even know by name, when he has to share his service revenue with an out of state, unlicensed NSP who doesn't share in HIS cost of doing business and often pays his invoices, not in 30 days, but in 60, 90 or 120 days or longer? Is there any loyalty to the customer? Rarely. NSPs often play one service provider against another in order to get the lowest charges. Is this illegal or unethical? Not really, but there are other things in their business model that are.

The similarities between the locksmith scammers and the NSPs are undeniable, but one is condemned as a scammer, and the other may be lauded as an entrepreneur with a successful business model.

There are things that you can do to avoid being scammed, whether you are a consumer looking to hire an independent contractor or a business manager considering contracting with an NSP firm. These things will be discussed in a future posting.

© 2009-2017 by Ken Doyle - The Safecracker
ADVANCED Safe & Vault
San Francisco Bay Area
+1 (415) 519-3401

Send me an email

Monday, January 5, 2009

Does my safe need to be serviced?

Safes and vaults, just like any other mechanical device, need to be serviced periodically to maintain proper functioning and to prevent the dreaded "lockout". How often this needs to happen depends on it's location and use factors.

Safes that are used (or abused) more frequently require more attention. Also, safes that haven't been opened on a regular basis (at least once a month) or unopened for several years may develop problems that are associated with lack of use, such as dried-up or solidified lubrication and other problems.

The most common problem and frequently the one that causes a lockout may be something as simple as a loose fastener, i.e. a small screw. That screw may only connect two parts, but it may be critical in your ability to open the safe or vault. Loose screws or other small parts may also become disconnected and fall into other moving parts causing a jam.

Although your safe or vault may sport an electronic (digital) safe lock which doesn't require as much service, maintenance on other parts are frequently ignored because the regular attention of a S&V technician (when he's there to reset a combination) may no longer be performed because users routinely set their own codes. Keypads, connectors, terminal strips and cables, i.e. "things that users may touch", may become damaged by rough or careless handling while replacing batteries. Inferior batteries may also leak, bulge or burst which can cause intermittent opening or even a complete failure of the lock.

Some of the things that a safe & vault technician will do on a routine service call are:

INSPECTION - disassemble bolt-works and lock(s) and check for loose fasteners, broken or worn parts, dried or congealed lubrication, slow time-lock movements, frayed cables, protective grommets and other wear or abuse factors. Inspection is the least time-consuming part of a service call, but it is also the most important part.

CLEANING & LUBRICATION - Although all internal parts must be clean and reassembled correctly in order to work properly, lubrication is a bit more complicated. The proper type, location and amount is very critical in the trouble-free operation of most mechanical safe locks and time-locks. Sloppy or amateur service is the second most common reason for an emergency lockout call.

ADJUSTMENTS - Many of the mechanisms inside a safe door need adjustment in order to function properly. Timing and balance are critical with some parts and the lack of adjustment may cause binds, door-running, handle disconnects and other problems that will make opening and closing the safe door more difficult, effect lock operation, as well as contribute to abuse factors that make other parts fail completely.

USER TRAINING - Bad habits and abuse factors that can cause lockouts may be minimized by training users in proper operation and battery replacements. A technician who services the safe or vault frequently and is familiar with normal operation and function may be able observe this behavior or see signs of it happening before it causes a lockout or other problem. A DOs & DON'Ts checklist is often recommended to help users correct the habits and factors that contribute to inconvenient and costly failures.

SERVICE INTERVALS - Safes or vaults that are in commercial use and have several busy users may need to be serviced on a bi-annual or annual basis, whereas a home safe that is used only infrequently by the owner may need service less than once every two or three years.

LESSON LEARNED? Routine service is convenient and inexpensive when compared to the inconvenience and expense of an emergency lockout and subsequent repairs.

Questions and comments are always appreciated. Use the email link provided, below.

© 2008-2017 by Ken Doyle - The Safecracker
ADVANCED Safe & Vault
San Francisco, Bay Area and Northern California
Telephone: +1 (415) 519-3401

Send me an email