Under most circumstances, very few people would stand by if a stranger in an unmarked van pulled into their driveway and proceeded to drill a hole in their front door. But the desperation that can set in when you’re locked out of your house is a special case.

Related: How to Secure Your Home Against Burglars

All too often, locked-out homeowners get duped by opportunistic locksmiths who seize on the chance to overcharge. Read on to learn how to avoid being scammed by a locksmith, plus tips to avoid needing one in the first place.

How locksmiths trick homeowners

In most cases, an established local locksmith will rely on reputation and offer services that are done well and priced fairly. Problems come into play when remote service providers or referral services pose as local locksmiths and dispatch untrained workers.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), such services sometimes go so far as to choose a name that’s similar to a highly regarded local locksmith. Many post multiple listings online. In one case cited by the FTC, a service listed as many as 30 phone numbers in a single phone book.

A call to one of these services typically links to a central call center in another state. Even if the listing includes a local address, it might be fake. Plenty of scammers list phony addresses in an effort to look legitimate.

To make sure a locksmith is both local and reputable, choose a listing with a physical address. Then do a quick web search to make sure the address is both real and registered to the business. You also can check the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) list of accredited locksmiths or find one registered with the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), whose 6,000 members all must pass a background check.

Related: Three Popular Scams Against Seniors to Beware

2 signs a locksmith isn’t legit

When a locksmith arrives at your home, you can save yourself from being scammed by noting two simple things.

He can’t prove he’s legit. This may become clear before he even gets out of his car or van: Most legitimate locksmiths drive a vehicle with the name of their business printed on the side. And while only 14 states currently require a locksmith to carry ID showing proof of licensing, the ALOA requires their members to carry such identification. Ask to see it.

He’s dead-set on drilling. If the locksmith who shows up at your home immediately informs you your lock can’t be picked and needs to be drilled out and replaced, send him on his way and call someone else. According to the FTC, an experienced and legitimate locksmith can almost always pick any lock. Drilling may be easier, but it’s also sloppier and more expensive.

Other precautions to take

Even if you’re frantic to get back into your house, the FTC advises taking time to get a cost estimate and breakdown of how you’ll be charged before the locksmith gets down to business. Ask, for example, if you’ll paying for mileage or for coming during off-hours. Get the estimate in writing and check it against the total before you pay.

To further protect yourself, the BBB recommends paying with a credit card. That way, if you suspect you were scammed you’ll have proof of the transaction and you can turn to your credit card company for resolution.

LockedOut, a service being tested in New York City, offers a promising solution to locksmith fraud. It's an app and website that will send a locksmith to pick a home door lock for a flat fee of $75. 

Related: Coming Soon: More Secure Credit Cards

Don’t get locked out in the first place

Hiding a key is one obvious solution, though you’ll have to weigh peace of mind against the reality that a thief could discover the key and let himself into your home. Leaving a key with a trusted neighbor is another, as long as you’re comfortable knocking on their door in the middle of the night.

Another option is to install a smart lock or automated lock on your front door. These battery-powered locks automatically retract a deadbolt when a pin code is entered or use a separate key fob. Some link to smartphones and allow you to open the door with an app or even e-mail a temporary key code to a friend or family member. One downside: If you forget to change the batteries, fobs and phones won’t open the door. But don’t worry, you can always open them with a conventional key too — as long as you have it with you. 

Paul Hope, a trained chef and DIY enthusiast, has restored two houses and writes about food and homes.