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2012 column image: 
2012 column title: 

National Consumer Protection Week 2012: Beware of Phony Ads, Reviews and Misleading Locations

2012 column date: 
Thursday, March 8, 2012
2012 column text: 
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen

MADISON —Many of us at one point have locked ourselves out of our car or home, and have found ourselves in need of a locksmith. Fortunately, there are many reliable, professional and well-established locksmith businesses in Wisconsin that provide excellent service at fair prices. In the past, it was easy to find such businesses through the phone book or the Internet. However, for consumers who want to hire an established, local firm, the task has become more difficult due to a surge of deceptive advertising by locksmith companies -- some of which are located in distant states but make great efforts to pretend that they are local.


In the last few years, particularly in our most heavily-populated areas, there has been an explosion of phony locksmith ads, many placed by single companies using a multitude of names, often listing phony local addresses and separate local phone numbers. Sometimes the phony business names even include references to the local communities. The obvious purpose of this deception is to convince unsuspecting consumers that the business is local, knowing that consumers strongly prefer to deal with established nearby businesses.


Some locksmith businesses have taken the deception a step further by posting fake consumer reviews that either praise their own businesses or disparage their competitors. This can mislead even the most diligent consumer who attempts to identify a reputable locksmith.


In reality, many of the new listings have come from out-of-state businesses, which when contacted by a potential customer, then dispatch a contract locksmith to perform the services. The consumer may have no idea of the identity of the company or the locksmith performing the service, which causes problems if the work is shoddy or the customer is overcharged. The false advertising not only thwarts consumers' efforts to deal with a reputable local locksmith business but can result in consumers being charged exorbitant rates by unscrupulous locksmiths who seek to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.


These deceptive practices also harm legitimate locksmith businesses, which have seen their own listings drowned in a sea of misleading locksmith ads, leading to a loss of business.


My office has taken a leading role in combating such deceptive practices. In the past two years, we have brought court actions against two out-of-state locksmith businesses, and one based in Madison. Together, these firms placed hundreds of misleading ads in yellow pages listings and on the Internet. One also posted hundreds of fake consumer reviews online.


We will continue to hold businesses accountable for deceptive advertising and other illegal business practices. For their part, consumers should be cautious in responding to ads. Here are some tips to avoid being deceived by unscrupulous locksmith businesses: make sure there is a valid street address for the business – a listing with no address (or a false address) can be a red flag for an out-of-state dispatcher; if you call the number listed, ask for the name and location of the company, and the location of the person with whom you are speaking; ask for the cost of the service in advance; beware of Internet reviews that appear suspiciously positive (for example, a batch of glowing reviews posted in a short period of time); if a locksmith arrives in a vehicle that is not marked with the business name, ask the locksmith for identification and make sure you know the name of the entity with whom you are dealing.


If you believe you have been victimized by dishonest conduct by any business, you may file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. You can download a complaint form or file a complaint online. You also may call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-422-7128.