TAMPA BAY - Despite hundreds of complaints to a half-dozen agencies in Florida, what the Better Business Bureau calls "the deceptive practices" of a local locksmith chain were allowed to continue for years. And the agency to finally bring the company down? The U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
"Dependable Locks" - a Clearwater-based company with over a 100 locksmiths across the country - was raided by federal investigators Wednesday, two days after 10 Connects' initial hidden-camera investigation aired. Owners Moshe Aharoni, 28, and David Peer, 31, are charged with money laundering, conspiracy to recruit foreigners to work illegally in the U.S., and mail fraud. They're accused of training their locksmiths - many of whom are Israeli nationals without work visas - how to defraud customers.
And although unhappy customers of the company have been pleading with state agencies for help ever since Dependable moved from New York City to Clearwater, none have been able to take action because locksmiths are unregulated in 36 states, including Florida.
"We're getting a bad reputation from these guys," said Tampa-based locksmith Ken Kupferman. "But it's also for the public's security and safety."
Kupferman, the former president of the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), says anyone - even without training - could buy a $25 tax license and call themselves a locksmith. He's been working with Florida legislators to get his business regulated.
His biggest concern is felons or sex offenders gaining access to consumers' homes.
"When we went to the state and said, 'we want to be regulated,' they said, 'it's not very often that a profession comes to us and says "we want government regulation," ' Kupferman said.
State Sen. Victor Crist (R-Tampa) has sponsored the "Florida Locksmith Services Act" the last two years. It would protect consumers by requiring licensing, training, and background checks. However, the legislation failed to make it out of committee in 2008 or 2009.
"What happens is, the priority issues move faster," Crist said, saying he'd sponsor the bill again in 2010. "And for the last few years, this has not been taken as a serious priority issue."
Like Crist, Kupferman is hoping the third time's the charm for the bill and he's not taking any chances. He's helping the ALOA step up its lobbying effort so that federal authorities don't need to bust any more locksmiths in Florida.
U.S. Postal Inspectors have established a hotline for those believing they victims of locksmiths' deceptive sales practices. The phone will not be manned, but callers are encouraged to leave their contact information at 314-539-9441. The calls will trigger an investigative response. There is also a toll-free number - 877-876-2455 - but there are more steps to finding the right extension.
To protect yourself in the future, look around for a reputable locksmith now. It will help prevent you from being taken advantage of in case of emergency.
The Associated Locksmiths of America provides a short list of member locksmiths at www.findalocksmith.com. Other locksmiths tell us try websites like www.angieslist.com or www.BBB.org, or just ask people you know for suggestions for trusted locksmiths.
Follow 10 Connects reporter Noah Pransky on Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky or Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky.