Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fake Online Locksmiths May Be Out to Pick Your Pocket

Maybe this has happened to you.

Locked out of your car or home, you pull out your phone and type “locksmith” into Google. Up pops a list of names, the most promising of which appear beneath the paid ads, in space reserved for local service companies.

You might assume that the search engine’s algorithm has instantly sifted through the possibilities and presented those that are near you and that have earned good customer reviews. Some listings will certainly fit that description. But odds are good that your results include locksmiths that are not locksmiths at all.

They are call centers — often out of state, sometimes in a different country — that use a high-tech ruse to trick Google into presenting them as physical stores in your neighborhood. These operations, known as lead generators, or lead gens for short, keep a group of poorly trained subcontractors on call. After your details are forwarded, usually via text, one of those subcontractors jumps in a car and heads to your vehicle or home. That is when the trouble starts.

The goal of lead gens is to wrest as much money as possible from every customer, according to lawsuits. The typical approach is for a phone representative to offer an estimate in the range of $35 to $90. On site, the subcontractor demands three or four times that sum, often claiming that the work was more complicated than expected. Most consumers simply blanch and pay up, in part because they are eager to get into their homes or cars.

“It was very late, and it was very cold,” said Anna Pietro, recalling an evening last January when she called Allen Emergency, the nearest locksmith to her home in a Dallas suburb, according to a Google Maps search on her iPhone. “This guy shows up and says he needs to drill my door lock, which will cost $350, about seven times the estimate I’d been given on the phone. And he demanded cash.”

The phone number at Allen Emergency is now disconnected.

It is a classic bait-and-switch. And it has quietly become an epidemic in America, among the fastest-growing sources of consumer complaints, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Lead gens have their deepest roots in locksmithing, but the model has migrated to an array of services, including garage door repair, carpet cleaning, moving and home security. Basically, they surface in any business where consumers need someone in the vicinity to swing by and clean, fix, relocate or install something.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say these guys have people in every large and midsize city in the United States,” said John Ware, an assistant United States attorney in St. Louis, speaking of lead-gen locksmiths. (...)

The Ghosts on Google

The flaws in the Google machine are well known to Avi, an Israeli-born locksmith, who asked that his last name be omitted from this story, citing threats by competitors. (“One told me there is a bounty on my head,” he said.) Avi has been at war with lead-gen operators for eight years. It’s like guerrilla combat, because the companies are forever expanding and always innovating, he said.

To demonstrate, he searched for “locksmith” in Google one afternoon in November, as we sat in his living room in a suburb of Phoenix. One of the companies in the results was called Locksmith Force.

The company’s website at the time listed six physical locations, including a pinkish, two-story building at 10275 West Santa Fe Drive, Sun City, Ariz. When Avi looked up that address in Google Maps, he saw in the bottom left-hand corner a street-view image of the same pinkish building at the end of a retail strip.

There seemed no reason to doubt that a pinkish building stood at 10275 West Santa Fe Drive.

Avi was skeptical. “That’s about a five-minute drive from here,” he said.

We jumped in his car. It wasn’t long before the voice in his GPS announced, “You have arrived.”

“That’s the address,” he said. He was pointing to a low white-brick wall that ran beside a highway. There was no pinkish building and no stores. Other than a large, featureless warehouse on the other side of the street, there was little in sight.

“This is what I’m dealing with,” Avi said. “Ghosts.”

These ghosts don’t just game search results. They dominate AdWords, Google’s paid advertising platform. Nearly all of those ads promise “$19 service,” or thereabouts, a suspiciously low sum, given that “locksmith”-related ads cost about $30 or so per click, depending on the area.

(Yes, Google makes money every time a person clicks on an AdWords ad, and yes, in the case of locksmiths, the cost can be $30 for every click — even more in some cities. If you’ve ever wondered how Google gives away services and is still among the most profitable companies in the world, wonder no more. People clicking AdWords generated $60 billion last year.)

by David Segal, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Caitlin O’Hara