Scams, glorious scams

It wasn't too bad from time to time seeing you answer questions about scams and hoax devices, but now it seems like a lot of your energy and brain power is wasted on that stuff. As a long time reader, every time I see a new letter answered that ends with "I'm sure it's a hoax but I just wanted to ask you" I die a little inside. You'd think by this time, with as much as we are all connected to the world, news, and technology we would just realize that if it's too good to be true it probably is... and if it ends up being true, we'll know about it soon enough. Anyway, take that how you will, I'll still idolize you in any case.


That'd better be a golden idol, and a damn big one, if you know what's good for you.

Unfortunately for Jordan, though, I find scams and hoaxes fascinating. Not so much when it's the the same scam over and over, like those ridiculous "power saver" things, of course. But there's always something new.

Just today, for instance, I discovered that New York City currently contains hundreds and hundreds of locksmiths. Do a Google Maps search and it looks as if the city has a life-threatening case of the measles.

It turns out that almost all of these companies are fake. They get themselves listed as "emergency locksmiths" in the phone book, Google Maps and so on at a fake address (which may be the address of a legitimate locksmith). And then, when someone has one of those special lock-related emergencies and calls the "local" company, the rip-offs commence.

Apparently, what they usually do is make you wait while they drive to your place from wherever they actually are, and then charge you way more than they quoted. In this respect, they're a bit like the numerous rip-off camera stores that also infest NYC.

But there's a lot more a crooked locksmith could do. I imagine burglary and locksmithing go together very well - it's ever so much more civilised to let yourself into a victim's house through the front door while he's at work, rather than break a window. Many of the bogus locksmiths seem to be completely incompetent, though, so I suppose there aren't all that many gentleman thieves among them.

Bogus-locksmith disease appears to be more communicable than the bogus-camera-store version. The camera stores are still pretty much restricted to New York, but the locksmiths are spreading right across the USA.

The novelty in this scam is the intersection with online mapping systems, which are being made useless by the tide of fake-company spam that makes it impossible to see which "local" locksmith is actually real. Word of mouth has always been the best way to find good local tradespeople, but until someone comes up with a way to filter the fakes out of services like Google Maps, there's now no other option.

(I wouldn't like to be the person trying to fix this. If the fake-filtering accidentally removes some real locksmiths from the map, I bet someone's going to get sued. Perhaps people could just call locksmiths at random, and whenever one arrives demanding far more money than he quoted, shoot him. That could work.)

Apart from the mapping thing, the locksmith scam is just boring overcharging of captive customers. It doesn't have the elegance of a classic grift, like the one where a door-to-door salesman sells elderly people a safe for their valuables that's disguised as a Bible, then breaks into the house a week later to retrieve the safe and its contents.

Some of the classic scams have been made impossible by advancing technology. Look at the "replace all your light bulbs for only $5" one, for instance. The scammer in this case actually started out with only one house-worth of bulbs, and from then on he just moved used bulbs from each house to the next, collecting his fee each time. Now that people are using expensive compact fluorescents, though, that one doesn't really fly. (There's still this dumb variant and the Robin Hood version, but that doesn't make any money.)

Some scams that seemed to die have been reborn, though. For a while there it seemed that the boiler room, for instance, was dead, because you couldn't get away with faking stock trades after everybody switched to Internet brokers. But now it turns out that the boiler rooms just got much bigger and took a new name - "hedge funds".

16 Responses to “Scams, glorious scams”

  1. iworm Says:

    My idea for a new scam is one where some old boy with impeccable connections gets a position at the head of a major bank, pretends he know something about banking, takes huge amounts of other people's money, ruins the bank, gets bailed out by the taxpayer and goes off in to the sunset with a huge severance payment and a vast pension. Very cool.

    But I guess I'm being silly - people would never be dumb enough to fall for that, would they?

    Toodle pip.

  2. bmorey Says:

    Ditto funeral directors. The Melbourne Yellow Pages is full of display ads for funeral directors with just a mobile number for contact. These aren't all different funeral directors of course - a good proportion are a front for Bell Funeral Services. Bell also runs several websites that look like genuine funeral directors but a whois search shows the truth: All Care Funeral Services, Female Funeral Care, Serenity Funeral Services, Harris Family Funerals, Combined Funeral Directors,, Allied Funeral Directors are all fronts. Some some say Bell is really shonky business but I couldn't possibly confirm this.

  3. trouserlord Says:

    Wouldn't googly street view be effective in circumventing the locksmith scam? You could check out the address to make sure there's actually a locksmith there. If you're really lucky it may even have the phone number on the shop front. I know it isn't always easy to go looking on the interwebs when you're locked out of the house at 3am. You'd need one of them iphone thingies.

  4. Stuart Says:

    I would second the sentiment that your talents are largely wasted on scams. That being said, whatever floats your boat.

    As for the locksmith, nothing beats a half brick in cost and effectiveness. Why overly complicate things?

  5. peridot Says:

    “replace all your light bulbs for only $5″ - that would be "Who will exchange old lamps for new lamps?", making it a very old scam indeed?

    Have you seen the British TV series Hustle?

  6. evilspoons Says:

    I suppose these fake locksmiths have unique phone numbers for each location that the guy on the other end has to keep straight in his mind. Perhaps you could just ask him where he's located and tell him "if you're not here in (a reasonable amount of time for the place he's supposed to be) don't bother showing up at all".

  7. captin_nod Says:

    Speaking to "until someone comes up with a way to filter the fakes out of services like Google Maps" - there are some community-driven websites like which function as workable filters. They do have their problems - fake reviews, payment to bump up search rankings etc. - but they still can be quite effective to weed out dodgy dealers.

    In San Francisco at least, Yelp seems to work because it seems everyone (well, for a specific subset of 'everyone' anyway) uses it, and _everything_ seems to have a review. If something smells fishy, there will soon be a ton of bad reviews for it - and it's effective, because so many potential customers will come to check Yelp before they go out and use a service.

  8. eofpi Says:

    Keeping track of the different numbers wouldn't be that hard; just stick labels on the cellphones.

    As an alternative to "if you're not here in $timeperiod...", you could call 2 or 3 locksmiths and tell them all that the first one there gets the job.

  9. dazzawul Says:

    locksmith, prolly 100+ dollars at 3 am

    half brick then a glass offcut (assuming you have those smaller windows near your door), 10 bucks max, you just have to worry about someone breaking in after you >.>

  10. j Says:

    "Who are you? How did you get in here?"
    "I'm a locksmith. And... I'm a locksmith."

  11. Daniel Rutter Says:

    For what it's worth, San Francisco seems to have a pretty good case of locksmith measles too. So I presume anybody who doesn't know to check Yelp, or gets fooled by fake Yelp reviews, is going to be just as screwed as a New Yorker.

  12. jmbier Says:

    To be fair, I more meant scam devices such as "save xxx amount of fuel per year", or "puts out more energy than it puts in". Kinda the no-brainer false claims. Your idol is made of pieces of your hair, skin flakes, and held together by bodily fluid. I cannot afford the gold :(

  13. peridot Says:

    @12: That's not an idol, that's a voodoo doll. Any sudden shooting pains recently, Dan?

  14. FuzzyPlushroom Says:

    I think it's a Billy Idol.

  15. THS Says:

    Ahhh could this be why Drebin and Nordberg opened up a locksmith shop in the old Police Squad series?

    Drebin had to break the door window to get into the shop because he couldn't get the key to work :)

  16. Mr. Peepers Says:

    I work in Manhattan, and you can't walk far without seeing a locksmith sticker right underneath the locks on most buildings, or on a phone booth. Sometimes it's layers of stickers on the doors. It's odd.

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