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In the latest chapter of "seeing isn't believing," brought to you by Google, meet your "local locksmith."
That's what plenty of Twin Cities residents thought they were getting when they locked themselves out of their homes and cars and googled "Chaska locksmith" or "Eden Prairie locksmith" or "Woodbury locksmith."
They were reassured by the local phone number, and sometimes even a local street address. But their calls rang through to Fuson Solutions, a company in Deerfield Beach, Fla., which quoted a low price and then dispatched technicians who showed up in those moments of duress and demanded far higher upfront payments.
Prodded by complaints about overcharges, deceptive websites and shoddy work, Attorney General Lori Swanson's office investigated. Earlier this month, Swanson's office announced that two men associated with that Florida call center, Alon Gorlovetzky Sr. and Yotam Hay Sr., paid a $40,000 fine and agreed to stop doing any business in Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the whole idea of a local business has also left town for good.
Our lives as consumers are ruled by Google's algorithms, which are as mysterious and closely held as the formula for Coca-Cola. Yet Google scrambles to stay ahead of unscrupulous marketers who concoct ways to exploit the search engines so bogus businesses show up at the top of the results.
Consumers these days want to eat local, and when a pipe breaks or the fuse blows or their key snaps in their door lock, they trust someone local to fix it for them. So that's what they tell their phones to look for.
"We trust it so much," said Jenette LaCroix, 42, of Chaska. "You just assume the search engine knows better than me."
LaCroix's car was in the garage when its automatic locks kicked in, her keys inside. She knew she had to pick up her daughter from basketball after school, so there was no time to waste. She searched for "locksmith" and "Chaska," and dialed one of the top results. The person on the phone quoted a price that was somewhere under $40, she said.
The guy who arrived an hour later told her she had to pay $125 up front. Eager to avoid a confrontation, LaCroix paid it.
"It took him about 35 seconds to open my car," she said.
The locksmith scams are hardly limited to Minnesota. One locksmith claiming to be in Sun City, Ariz., created a phony Google Street View image of its headquarters on what's actually a vacant lot, the New York Times reported last month. Some of the websites for putative Twin Cities locksmiths featured phony addresses, including "Eden Prairie Locksmith Service," which had borrowed a car repair shop's address, according to the attorney general.
On Feb. 10, Swanson wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, asking for help in stopping the locksmith scams. It seemed to me the equivalent of writing a letter to Santa Claus. Google has not responded to my own inquiry. But Swanson said in an interview that Google has already called her office.
"I was pleased that they responded so quickly indicating a willingness to look at it," Swanson said Friday. "The proof will be in the pudding."
She noted that in the face of complaints from her office and others, Google has already shown a willingness to tweak its search engine. Extortionist websites that feature mug shots, which can be removed for a fee, no longer dominate Google searches as they used to, she said.
While the two men behind the Florida call center are banned from Minnesota, the company that actually employed the technician that opened LaCroix's car remains in business. Reliable Locksmith LLC is registered to Miki Abuhassira in Minneapolis.
In an interview, Abuhassira said he used to do business with Gorlovetzky and Hay, splitting the fees 60-40, but no longer. His website lists 56 cities in the metro area where he does business, but he said what he does is different from what the attorney general is targeting.
"I'm local," he said. "Everybody knows who I am, where I am."