Fake Online Locksmiths May Be Out to Pick Your Pocket, Too (Published 2016) (2022)


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Fake Online Locksmiths May Be Out to Pick Your Pocket, Too (Published 2016) (1)

By David Segal

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.


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Many legitimate locksmiths contend that the solution should come not from law enforcement but from Google. Google says that it is working on improvements, and clearly the days are over when, as in 2009, a search for Manhattan locksmiths yielded a map so covered in red location dots it that looked like a bad case of the measles.

A Google spokesman said that the company worked hard to check bad actors and quickly removed listings that violate its policies.

But the company is still too easily tricked into listing lead gens, high up, even after years of redesigns and algorithm adjustments, critics say. Local service results have improved of late, but too many consumers are still getting ripped off because Google, the world’s biggest search engine, is perennially a step behind a group of sophisticated swindlers, according to experts in the field.

“Google has been subpar on this,” said Danny Sullivan, a founding editor of the website Search Engine Land. “When problems arise, they kind of deal with them as they pop up, but they don’t correct systemic flaws that are out there.”

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.)

In a search for locksmiths in Mountain View, Calif., home to Google’s headquarters, the first AdWords listing was 24hourlocksmithsanjose.net, which offered $19 service. Research into the company’s domain name revealed that it is owned by Yossi Assraf of Locksmith Advertising, in Portland, Ore.

Mr. Assraf also owns more than 800 other domain names, according to the website Whoisology, including 247westpalmbeach.com, 247locksmithlouisville.com, 247-locksmithcleveland.com, 247-locksmithjerseycity.com and so on.

Those have all the trappings of a lead gen. And, 247 Locksmith Advertising has an F rating from the Better Business Bureau, along with a list of nearly identical complaints.

“Over all the cost was $200!!” wrote one unhappy customer, who had been expecting to pay $19. “This was a complete bait and switch!”

Messages left for Yossi Assraf were not returned.

Recently, I sent Google the ad for 24hourlocksmithsanjose, as well as a screen shot of the fake Locksmith Force building and the names of about 20 other locksmiths that appeared to be lead gens. The company asked for a few days to look into the matter.

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Pipeline From Israel

National data that could capture the scale of the lead-gen problem does not exist, largely because most of the complaints occur at the state level, by way of attorneys general, Better Business Bureaus and Yelp. Also, the sums involved are usually modest, so many people have no idea they have been swindled, or they know but don’t think it’s worth anyone’s while to contact the authorities.

Legitimate companies and the Associated Locksmiths of America, however, have been howling about lead gens since they first started popping up in the early 2000s.

“Talk to anyone in the business and they’ll tell you that revenue is down 30 to 40 percent,” said Mark Baldino, who owns a handful of locksmith stores in the Washington area. “There are 10 fake locations around me, and consumers have no idea which of us is real and which is going to rip them off.”

The difference between people like Mr. Baldino and locksmiths sent by lead gens is not just a physical storefront; excellent locksmiths work out of cars and vans, too. Lead-gen locksmiths are essentially short-term hires, and their priority is not repeat customers. It’s quick cash.

Many of the locksmith lead gens are run by Israelis, and Avi learned their modus operandi by working for them. When he landed at La Guardia Airport in 2008, he wanted to work with computers, the field he had trained for in Israel. But it was the height of the recession, and he did not have many options.

“At the time, if you were an Israeli, it was either carpet cleaning or locksmithing,” he said. “I tried carpet cleaning for a week and hurt my back so badly, I said this is not for me.”

A company in New Jersey, owned by an Israeli, hired him, gave him a week of training and told him he could keep 40 percent of every job. His instructions were to size up each customer and ask for as much money as possible. He quit, found an honest shop, eventually earned enough to open his own company and relocated to Phoenix.

Today, a well-oiled system keeps young Israelis flowing to the United States for locksmith jobs. Companies beckon on Israeli employment websites such as Maka (Hebrew for “score”). Among those currently hiring are Green Locksmith, Locksmith Garage, CT Locksmith and Mr. Locks. The latter, which claims its main office is in TriBeCa, promises that employees will earn as much as $4,000 a month and says it is looking for people “who are not afraid of new things.” Like many of these companies, Mr. Locks covers itself by stating — in Hebrew and on a site that caters to Israelis — that it is looking for United States citizens.

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Many of the recruits later establish their own lead-gen operations, which then recruit more talent. This has increased competition and made deceiving Google an ever more esoteric pursuit. That was evident during a conversation with Roy Alverado, the owner of Locksmith Force, the company that created the fake pink building in Sun City. He insisted that he ran an authentic local business, with trained and courteous locksmiths.

As for that fake building: “We wanted to have a store in that area, but the rents were too high,” he said. He told a web design firm to create a building using Photoshop. Actually, all but one of the buildings are Photoshop creations, since Locksmith Force’s sole physical location is in Phoenix, Mr. Alverado said. The more buildings on the site, he candidly stated, the more people would believe they were calling someone who could show up at a car or house quickly.

Mr. Alverado said those fake buildings were necessary because getting to the first page in Google results now took ingenuity and cunning.

“You have no idea,” he said, sounding a little weary when asked about competition. Israelis were his toughest rivals, he said, and they had instilled a kind of awe in him. “I can tell you point-blank, they are freaking smart,” he said. “I really admire them.”

A few months ago, he decided that he needed some help with search engine optimization. A company called Over the Top SEO showed up on the first page of an “SEO company” search, so he figured it was very good. Then he saw that the company was based in Israel. Mr. Alverado was sold. If he couldn’t beat the Israelis, he would hire them.

“We’re already seeing great results,” he said.

Gaming the Algorithm

Even with the rise of Facebook and improvements to Apple Maps, Google is still the essential source of revenue for local businesses — 85 percent of all local search traffic reaches local businesses through Google, according to Mike Blumenthal, who writes a definitive blog on the topic.

To understand how lead gens game Google’s algorithm, you need to know a bit about how a company’s address winds up in Google’s results, and how those results can be fraudulently altered. Few know the particulars better than Bryan Seely, who worked for a lead-gen outfit in the automotive glass repair field, based in Southern California, from 2008 to 2010. During that time, he produced about 3,000 fake auto glass repair listings across the country. Eventually appalled by his handiwork, he became what he calls a reformed hacker and explained his techniques in a self-published book, “Cyber Fraud: The Web of Lies.”


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“My hope was that the book would cause Google to patch up these holes,” he said on the phone recently. “It didn’t work.”

In the interest of minimizing mischief, the methods Mr. Seely described will not be detailed here. But they involve chicanery with two platforms: Google My Business, essentially the company’s version of the Yellow Pages, and Map Maker, which is Google’s crowdsourced online map of the world. The latter allows people around the planet to log in to the system and input data about streets, companies and points of interest.

Both Google My Business and Map Maker are a bit like Wikipedia, insofar as they are largely built and maintained by millions of contributors. Keeping the system open, with verification, gives countless businesses an invaluable online presence. Google officials say that the system is so good that many local companies do not bother building their own websites. Anyone who has ever navigated using Google Maps knows the service is a technological wonder.

But the very quality that makes Google’s systems accessible to companies that want to be listed makes them vulnerable to pernicious meddling.

“This is what you get when you rely on crowdsourcing for all your ‘up to date’ and ‘relevant’ local business content,” Mr. Seely said. “You get people who contribute meaningful content, and you get people who abuse the system.”

The most obvious symptom of abuse is a wild proliferation of lead-gen listings. Charles Eastwood, a locksmith in Phoenix, subpoenaed Acxiom, a data brokerage firm, as part of a lawsuit he filed against a group of purported lead gens in 2010. He wanted to know how many locksmiths were listed in Arizona.

“There were 9,600 of them in the list I got from Acxiom,” he said. “That’s about 9,000 more than anyone believes actually work in the state.”

‘A Five-Alarm Fire’


To fight lead gens, Google deploys a little-known army of volunteers, called Mappers, many of whom are engaged in a contest that takes wit and stamina. These are people around the world who propose and approve edits to Google Maps, with an assist from Google employees, all in the interest of refining the product and fighting spam — a term that in this context means anything fake and misleading.

It may seem bizarre that people would work gratis for one of the world’s richest companies. But many Mappers turn the job into a calling. For Dan Austin, who lives in Olympia, Wash., it was more like an addiction.

A former truck driver for DHL, he became a Mapper after he was laid off from his job and started fixing mistakes he had noticed on Maps while on the road. By the fall of 2011, Mr. Austin had discovered locksmith spam and was soon spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week, deleting it from Maps.

“It was like a video game except it had a moral element to it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’d have wiped out 1,000 locations and I would think, that’s 1,000 phone calls that didn’t get made, 1,000 consumers who didn’t get scammed. I felt like Superman.”

Mr. Austin became a Regional Lead, the highest rank in Google’s Boy Scout-like badge system of incentives, a job — still unpaid — that required him to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

He was quickly locked in a struggle that seemed inspired by Cold War spycraft. Some lead-gen owners became Mappers themselves, hoping to stealthily protect their listings. They were essentially moles. One of them, who called himself Baton Sason, contacted Mr. Austin through a private detective.

“At first, he thought I was another spammer,” Mr. Austin recalled. When Mr. Sason realized that Mr. Austin was truly on Google’s side, he tried to win amnesty for his sites in exchange for help informing on his competitors. Mr. Austin played along for a few months, then deleted Mr. Sason’s sites too.

Initially, Mr. Austin regarded Google as a benign Goliath that cared about consumers and small businesses. But about 18 months after his campaign began, pessimism crept in. He realized, he said, that spammers were changing tactics much faster than Google was adopting countermeasures.

“For me, it was always like I was looking at a five-alarm fire,” he said. “To them, it was smoldering.”

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By the fall of 2012, Mr. Austin was disillusioned. He decided that the subtle approach to getting attention wasn’t working. So he did something obnoxious. In the middle of the Google Map of Los Angeles, he placed a marijuana grow house. Not a dispensary, which is legal. A grow house, which is a place where plants are harvested. Those are illegal. Then he highlighted the stunt on a Map Maker forum.

The plan was to demonstrate that it was too easy to hoodwink Google. The plan failed. Google fired him from his unpaid job. (A Google spokesman declined to comment.)

Today, Mr. Austin has the faintly bitter tone of a man who has left a cult, but he is cleareyed about why Google never seemed to respond quickly enough to spammers. It wasn’t a priority, he said. The company is dominated by software coders, and they want to solve the most interesting problems, or create the coolest products.


“Fighting spam is boring,” Mr. Austin said. “The employees who cared didn’t have the political clout in the company. I’d hear Googlers say, ‘Maps is a mess. It’s known at the highest levels, but we don’t talk about it publicly.’”

Caught in an Arms Race

The justice system is the most obvious alternative to Google in the fight against locksmith lead gens, and in 2009, federal prosecutors in St. Louis went after three principals of Dependable Locks on charges of a variety of nationwide frauds. This was the most ambitious action ever taken against a suspected lead gen; postal inspectors had surprised the company by showing up at its headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., with a search warrant. Files were confiscated, employees were persuaded to tell all.

Little, it seems, went right after that. One defendant fled the country, according to prosecutors. In 2013, a federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing the case because the government had deported four witnesses, all of them former Dependable employees who might have helped the defendants. The judge also suggested that the case would be difficult for the prosecution to win because Dependable phone representatives usually added the phrase “and up” when quoting prices.

One of the prosecutors, Mr. Ware, the assistant United States attorney in St. Louis, respectfully disagreed with those findings.

“Ninety percent of people were charged more than the estimate,” he said. “We had locksmiths tell us that they would take whatever they could get from customers.”

One lesson of the Dependable case, which took years from inception to dismissal, is that the criminal courts are a terrible way to fight purported lead-gen locksmiths. Civil cases have fared no better. Mr. Baldino, the locksmith in Washington area, lost a case against Google and other directories in which he said the companies commingled legitimate and illegitimate players in listings. Last February, a Virginia state court found that Google had immunity under the Communications Decency Act, which extends to all information that does not originate with Google — “even when given notice that it has published false information,” the court concluded.

Only Google, it seems, can fix Google. The company is trying, its representatives say, by, among other things, removing fake information quickly and providing a “Report a Problem” tool on the maps. After looking over the fake Locksmith Force building, a bunch of other lead-gen advertisers in Phoenix and that Mountain View operation with more than 800 websites, Google took action.

Not only has the fake Locksmith Force building vanished from Google Maps, but the company no longer turns up in a “locksmith Phoenix” search. At least not in the first 20 pages. Nearly all the other spammy locksmiths pointed out to Google have disappeared from results, too.

“We’re in a constant arms race with local business spammers who, unfortunately, use all sorts of tricks to try to game our system and who’ve been a thorn in the Internet’s side for over a decade,” a Google spokesman wrote in an email. “As spammers change their techniques, we’re continually working on new, better ways to keep them off Google Search and Maps. There’s work to do, and we want to keep doing better.”

There was no mention of a stronger verification system or a beefed-up spam team at Google. Without such systemic solutions, Google’s critics say, the change to local results will not rise even to the level of superficial.

Apprised that Locksmith Force had been relegated to the Internet’s version of oblivion, Avi was in no mood to celebrate.

“One down,” he wrote in an email. “Fifty thousand to go.”

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How do I know if my locksmith is real? ›

The best way to know whether a locksmith is trustworthy is to research them in advance. Call them, ask them detailed questions, and check their reviews. Once you find a reputable locksmith who checks off all the boxes, save them in your phone for future use. In the meantime, practice proper door lock maintenance.

Do locksmiths rip you off? ›

Professional locksmiths, perhaps unsurprisingly, don't think so. But even the professionals admit that the service is ripe for ripoff artists.

Who invented locksmithing? ›

It is believed to have started in Ancient Egypt and Babylon around 4000 years ago. A common belief was that the first locks were small and portable and were used to protect goods from thieves who were common along ancient travel routes.

What locksmith means? ›

Definition of locksmith

: a person who makes or repairs locks.

Can locksmith be trusted? ›

One of the easiest ways to determine the trustworthiness of a locksmith is asking to see some accreditation. All good locksmiths should have professional accreditation to a recognized locksmith organization, such as the Society of Professional Locksmiths (SOPL) or the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA).

Can a locksmith open a deadbolt? ›

With the right tools and the proper training, a locksmith can have your door opened in no time. Locksmiths have the tools needed to get into your home no matter the situation. Unfortunately, this also means that almost anyone can pick your lock if they know what they're doing.

Why do locksmiths charge so much? ›

Locksmiths are expensive because they have the technical training and expertise to do jobs that most other people can't do. They're also available 24/7 which means they can charge extra if it's outside of normal business hours.

Do locksmiths keep a key? ›

Cut Keys. One of the most common jobs a locksmith will carry out is cutting spare keys for your home or business. Depending on the key, this can often be carried out in store while you wait.

How much does a local locksmith cost? ›

Expect to pay $85 to $250 to hire a locksmith. The minimum call-out charge is $30 to $85, while the minimum trip fees range from $50 to $100 and can go up to $150 if you live in a rural area.
Estimating Locksmith Costs.
Hourly rate$50 – $100
Emergency rate$150 – $250
Trip fees$50 – $100

How do you unlock a door without a key? ›

How to unlock a door without a key? Locksmith Monkey
  1. Use a bobby pin. The bobby pin lock pick is one of the most common tricks used to unlock doors. ...
  2. Use a screwdriver. The way you use a screwdriver to open a door without using a key is quite easy. ...
  3. Use a knife. ...
  4. Lock picking. ...
  5. Use a credit card. ...
  6. Use a Bump key. ...
  7. Remove the hinges.
Jan 3, 2022

What is the little hole on the bottom of a padlock? ›

The pinhole on your padlock acts as a drain hole. The hole on the bottom of a padlock allows water to drain. This prevents the padlock's internal mechanisms from rusting, so they can continue to function properly. When the water is removed, it also can't freeze inside the lock under cold temperature conditions.

How many locks have the same key? ›

They're called keyed-alike locks and are sold in many big name hardware stores. It's something homeowners need to know. "You might need three locks, but there may be 10 on the shelf, they are all the same key," said Ron Boddie with B&B Locksmiths.

What is another name for a locksmith? ›

Locksmith synonyms

In this page you can discover 4 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for locksmith, like: tradesman, glazier, plumber and electrician.

How do you make a key mold without a key? ›

How Do Locksmiths Make Keys Without an Original Key - YouTube

Who do you call a person who cuts keys? ›

A locksmith is usually the person making keys. You can also have duplicates made in hardware stores. If you don't have a key, but need one for a particular lock, then only a locksmith can make it.

How do you pick a reputable locksmith? ›

7 Steps to Choosing the Right Locksmith
  1. Be Clear About the Locksmith Services You Need.
  2. Find Out Who Can Provide the Service.
  3. Ask Which Locksmith Providers Are Covered.
  4. Get an Estimate for the Cost of Services.
  5. Request to See Credentials.
  6. Pay Attention to the Documentation.
  7. Get an Invoice for the Locksmith Services.

How much does a locksmith cost in London? ›

The cost to hire a locksmith in London is about £100 on average, though you might pay anywhere from £59 to £350 depending on what kind of locksmith service you need, the locks you want and number of keys you need.

How do I choose a locksmith UK? ›

To help you choose the correct locksmith for you we recommend the following steps:
  1. Look for 3rd party approval. One way we'd suggest when looking to hire a locksmith is for 3rd party approval and any accreditations. ...
  2. Go Local instead of National Call Centres. ...
  3. Recommendations & Word Of Mouth. ...
  4. Get 3 Quotes.

How do you unlock a door without a key in 5 seconds? ›

10 Ways To Open A Door Without A Key - YouTube

Can a magnet unlock a deadbolt? ›

A magnet cannot entirely unlock a deadbolt.

How do you open a locked door with a pen? ›

How to hack OPEN a LOCK with a PEN !! TUTORIAL - YouTube

How much does a locksmith cost to make a car key? ›

A professional locksmith can help you regain access. Locksmiths can make new car transponders, remotes, cut new keys and repair broken locks.
Average Locksmith Prices.
General door key replacementR500R700
Repair of key stuck in lockR650R1000
Car key replacementR500R1200
5 more rows

How much does it cost to unlock a car? ›

The cost for a locksmith to unlock a car typically ranges from about $50 to $250, according to eLocal.com. Towing services or car dealerships can be expensive too.

How much does it cost to change the locks on a car? ›

Change Locks on a Car Cost

A car lock replacement by a locksmith costs $75 to $220 on average. If you have it changed at the dealership, it will cost an average of $200 to $600, and if you replace it yourself, it will cost $15 to $350 depending on the type of lock you have.

What keys Cannot be copied? ›

The following is a list of keys that cannot be duplicated:
  • Transponder Key.
  • Laser Cut Car Key.
  • VAT Key.
  • Abloy keys.
  • Chip Keys.
  • Tubular Keys.
  • Internal Cut Keys.
  • Four-Sided Key.
Mar 10, 2016

How does a locksmith know it's your car? ›

A copy of the deed to your home, your car's title or other documentation listing you as the owner of the building or car will be sufficient to prove ownership to the locksmith.

Can a locksmith open a door without breaking it? ›

Can a locksmith open a lock without breaking it? Yes, a locksmith can open your lock without damaging it, most locksmiths use a non-destructive way to open your door to enter the property ensuring no damage is done to the lock or door.

How do you get inside when your locked out? ›

How to Get into Your House with a Credit Card If You're Locked Out

Is it better to rekey or change locks? ›

If you're looking to get better security of your locks, changing them to new, higher security ones will be the way to go. Due to the extremely low price of the key pins in the locks, rekeying is almost always much cheaper than getting your locks changed.

How much does it cost to make a house key at Walmart? ›

Yes, you can make keys at Walmart. Most Walmarts have a key cutting kiosk in their stores. These machines are completely self-serve and it only takes around 2 minutes. It will cost you around $2 to $6 per key.

What proof do you need for locksmith? ›

Ownership is typically verified by asking for and checking a valid photo ID, such as a driving licence or by checking a bill showing the name and address of the property. If you don't have any identification to prove your ownership or residency, it's likely the service will be refused.

Why would a key copy not work? ›

The most common problem by far is that a key is copied by somebody who hasn't cleaned their machine or hasn't calibrated the machine in years or both. The result is that the key blank will be placed in the clamp with a bunch of brass shavings underneath it, pushing it up 5-10 thousandths of an inch.

Why do key copies never work? ›

The big box key has the cuts too deep and too far back on the blade of the key. When you put a key into a lock, the pins inside the lock are supposed to fall into the valleys of the key creating a shear line at the top of the cylinder, which allows the cylinder to turn and unlock the lock.

What happens when you call a locksmith? ›

What should you expect when calling a locksmith and what does the process entail? The first step is submitting a service request. Next, the company's dispatch department will work with the local team to find a technician available to help you. The technician will contact you with an estimated time of arrival.


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