Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Let's Put The Lock Up Out Of Business

Sometimes I wake up wondering how I'll spend the day. Other times, I want to focus my efforts on putting a self storage company out of business. Interesting how organizations behaving badly can help a person find a mission in life. 
           After more than ten years of renting two self storage lockers from The Lock Up, which does business in eight states and has about fourteen facilities in the Chicago area alone, I decided to stop throwing money down that bottomless pit any longer. Articles like THIS ONE pointed out that I could have purchased what I was storing several times with the amount I was paying in fees. Ten years times $200 per month -- you do the math. That was $24,000 I'd never see again. Did I mention I bought into the heated and air conditioned upgrade too? 
          The monthly rent isn't all you can expect. Be ready for the usurious late fees The Lock Up charges. You can expect loan shark quality "vig" if your payment is one minute past the grace period. 
          The late charges begin at 20% of the monthly fee and continue to grow to as much as 50% if you don't pay by 30 days. So if your locker costs $100, you're looking at $150+ by the end of the month. Who is regulating the business practices of these storage companies? 
          Fortunately, with one exception, the considerate people who used to work at my location always gave me a heads up phone call -- against the rules -- to help me avoid the kinds of penalties banks can only dream of. 
          And then there are the attractive low-low rental fees. For several years I paid a fairly stable amount for the two lockers I rented, which, like most people who get sucked into self storage, began as a "special." Surprisingly, the monthly increase went up only $10 per locker, or 10%, in all that time. To economize this last year, I downgraded to two unheated lockers so I could save $80 a month. That decision alone cut my fees almost by half. 
          However, there was a change in management I was told. Sure, the new people who worked at my location were still helpful, friendly, and considerate, but a mere six months later, my new, much lower locker fees suddenly jumped by 28%. With no warning. I was told this was standard practice. For who? The Russian Mafia? The rates that suck you in only last for six months. Didn't the credit card companies get into trouble for similar behavior?
          Apparently there's nothing to stop them from raising the prices as high as they want. Just try to find an alternative. Check for yourself. Self storage prices tend to be the same across the board. Is that the fires of hell or do I smell collusion?
          I get the impression that building a storage facility is a license to print money to begin with, so why this need to gouge the renters? Wait, I bet I know. Because they can. Scratch the surface of this industry and I'm sure there's an "association" of self storage companies that meets in warm spots during winter for annual meetings. They probably don't bother the latest improvements in aluminum garage doors and cinder block construction, when price fixing is so much more fun.   
          The introductory price scam is when I knew I had to move everything out. 
          On September fifth, with my lockers now empty, I signed all the exit papers and I was told I would receive my initial $200 deposit in two weeks. I had actually forgotten about the deposit, so, in a way, it felt like found money. 
          On the other hand, it was money that had been sitting for over ten years in somebody else's bank account, adding interest. Not much, but money I'd never see. 
          As it turns out, they were going to make me work for my refund.
          Two weeks passed after moving out and no check. Was this going to be their final stick it to me? 
          Four weeks passed and still no check, so I called and asked someone at the location to find out when the check was sent out. Based on their original promise, I should have had the check by September 19th, I pointed out.
          It was sent out September 21st they told me. So what you really meant to say was I won't be getting the check in two weeks, because you don't send it out until after two weeks have passed. 
         The problem, I pointed out, is that it was now October 5th, almost two weeks after the check supposedly went out on September 21st.
         So where is the check? 
         They actually told me it was in the mail. And it was the post office's fault that I didn't have it. Maybe my address was incorrect they added. Or the check was delivered to the wrong address. Then I'd have to wait until the post office sent it back to them. And they didn't know when that would be. 
         If I were using their late fee penalty structure, they'd owe me $300 by now. And another $60 as of last Friday. 
         I called back. I've been getting mail from you for a decade. I don't think it was sent to the wrong address. The post office isn't the bad guy here. Stop payment on the check and cut a new one I told them. Once again they did nothing and blamed the post office.
         Keep in mind that during all this, I'm not talking to anyone at the corporate office where people actually write the check. I can only talk to the call center or the location where I rented. These are the people stuck in the middle between a disgruntled customer and the corporate toadies. They have to relay my messages back and forth, to and from corporate, because I'm not allowed to to talk directly to the people who are responsible for this mess. In case you're wondering, the location and phone number of the corporate office are not provided anywhere on the website. I wonder why?
          Another week goes by. 
          I call again. Hello, I didn't get the check. In fact, I have no proof you people even sent me a check. I only have your word. Here's what you're going to tell corporate to do, I said, repeating myself, because clearly no one was listening -- stop payment on the first check, tell them to cut me a new one, and send it to me today. 
          That was last week. This week -- still no check. 
          Yesterday morning I called to say that I had spent over $20,000 with the company and if I didn't get a check FedExed to me for today [Wednesday], I would write about their slimy operation in my blog. Based on the number of friends I have who worry constantly about showing up in an entry, I thought that should put some real 'I'll show you a thing or two" fear into them. For at least a minute or two. 
          Yesterday afternoon, I got a message saying that the people in The Lock Up accounting department claimed that the check had been returned by the post office. And they were going to cut me another check! But, now they wanted to know whether I wanted it sent to the rental location or my home? What is it about sending ME a check that they don't understand?
          This was followed by another message saying oops there was a misunderstanding. The check didn't actually get sent back to The Lock Up, but they definitely were going to stop payment on the first one and send me a new one. Like this was suddenly their idea. And [once again] did I want it sent to my house or the rental location?  
          Before I could call back, I got yet another message this morning reiterating that The Lock Up would stop payment and cut a new check [rinse and repeat], but they wouldn't be sending it to me via FedEx. [Big mistake.] And now I had no choice -- they were sending the check to the rental location instead of my house. Stupid just keeps getting stupider. 
          So I called the location where I had rented and I asked when was the check going out? He didn't know. I said it better go out today [Wednesday]. And I better get it by Friday. 
          Then I asked him what state the corporate offices were located in. He told me he'd have to call his boss to get permission to give me that information. 
          Really? You have to have permission to tell me that? I just want to know which state. Illinois it turns out. But call your boss anyway and ask him if you can give me the address and phone number of your corporate offices. 
          He'll get back to me. 
          I will post it here. 
          Meanwhile, what are the odds I will get a check by Friday? Zero, it turns out.
          Nothing arrived Friday, October 21st. 
          Nothing arrived Saturday, October 22nd. 
          Nothing arrived on Monday, October 24th. When I called the location, I was told that the check would arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday, "by the latest." 
          Nothing arrived on Tuesday, October 25th, but when I called my former location, a substitute answered the phone. So, figuring she didn't know about the embargo, I asked, "Can you give me the phone number and address of the corporate offices?" "Sure. 847.441.7477."  The address that goes with that phone number is 800 Frontage Road, Northfield, IL  60093 in case you want to join me on a picket line. 
          Today, October 26th, five weeks after it was promised and seven weeks after I moved everything out, a check arrived at the location where I used to rent my lockers. 
          The amount of the check was strange: $204.14. It's possible that the original rental was $102 per locker. I know it reached $110 after several years. But I have no idea where the $.14 cents came from. So, I'll write and ask. 

FIRST UPDATE: Wednesday, October 19th: I've done a little sleuthing and found the name of the owner of the company, Bob Soudan. I have also found out that the company that owns The Lock Up Development Group seems go be a holding company for a number of real estate ventures -- BRB Development, LLC. And the address listed for their corporate offices is in the next town. A mere four miles away. I have the feeling that they aren't going to mail the second check. Somebody will probably drive it over to my rental location instead. So they can save a stamp. That's how cheap they are. 
            I read where The Lock Up is considered the leader in the self storage industry's association. I knew they had to have one. So that would make them in charge of the price fixing for the entire industry I suppose. Ooops, did I say that out loud?  
            The article mentions the owner's son, Bob, Jr. and son-in-law, Rick Hielscher, as taking over the business. What's interesting is that the son-in-law has the same name as a guy who grew up in my hometown, was a 6'8" center on my high school's basketball team, and an All Ivy player at Princeton. And used to work at Leo Burnett ad agency. He would also be the son of a guy I used to work with at my ad agency. Turns out he is listed on LinkedIn so I checked his profile. Bingo. One and the same guy. Got an address and and a phone number for the bidness. So I can just ease on down the road tomorrow. . . 
            I'll keep you posted.