Scam Artists Smudge Chimney Sweeps' Reputation

By Jim Gillam

Originally published in SNEWS - The Chimney Sweep News, December 2007

The apparently increasing prevalence of chimney scams is prompting warnings from government officials and consumer advocates.

“Whisk away any chimney sweep who uses scare tactics or shows up without the basics (a flashlight, brushes, and a special vacuum)” cautioned Consumers Union, publishers of Consumers Reports (, last month, adding, “Also beware of those who offer low bids or excessive proposals.”

“Be wary if you get a call from anyone claiming to be from ‘your chimney cleaning company’ or ‘the chimney company,’ phrases which suggest it’s a business with which you have an established relationship,” wrote renowned consumer reporter Asa Aarons in the New York Daily News on October 23.

“The public should be aware that there has been a higher insurgence of fraudulent chimney services than any other home improvement services,” stated Lt. Michael Walsh of the Fairfield, NY Police Department on September 6, as reported in the Fairfield Citizen-News.

In October, police in New Haven, CT urged residents “not to allow anyone to enter their home or to do business with anyone who randomly knocks on the door.”

Write Us a Check
The warnings come in response to complaints from consumers concerning overcharges for chimney repairs.

The New Haven case involved two men in a white van who on September 26 allegedly arrived at the home of an elderly woman and claimed to have been sent by the oil company to work on her chimney. New Haven Neighborhood Services Officer Joe Avery stated, “The suspects charged this woman $1600 to clean and do work on her chimney and asked her to write the check out to the abbreviation of their company name, C.A.S.H.,” according to a report in the New Haven Independent.

Similar modi operandi have been reported in numerous locations this year, including Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Rhode Island. Scammers use innumerable ploys, but their techniques often have several things in common. They usually begin with an offer of a low cost inspection or sweeping. When the company arrives for the job, they claim to discover problems that urgently require repair. They may pressure the homeowner, sometimes with scare tactics, to hire them to do the work immediately. Then the company may “do no work at all, inferior work or unnecessary work,” warned County Executive Andy Spano of Westchester County, NY.

“The questionable sweeps often offer discounts for cash,” wrote Aarons. “Failing that, they’ll encourage consumers to bill the full amount to credit cards.”

Scammers’ favorite targets are senior citizens, but they’ll go after anyone. “These scam artists prey on all members of our community, regardless of age or income level,” said Putnam County, NY Consumer Affairs Director Joseph LaBarbera.

“The problem has become a rite of spring and fall,” said the Orange County, NY Department of Consumer Affairs in a press release.

Advice for Consumers
Consumers Union describes a basic chimney sweep and inspection procedure that “will last up to 90 minutes” and suggests that consumers should expect to pay $150-$300.

The Orange County, NY Department of Consumer Affairs recommends that “consumers try to avoid doing business via phone solicitations unless they are familiar or have done business with the solicitor previously.” The Department also advises consumers to:
- Never pay for unauthorized work, which purportedly has been done.
- Never succumb to high-pressure tactics in paying the bill.
- Remember when they leave with your money, most likely you will never be able to locate them again.
- If possible try to record the license plate number of the vehicle.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) has published recommendations on how to hire a chimney sweep. The institute suggests asking:
- How long has the chimney sweeping company been in business?
- Does the company offer current references?
- Does the company have unresolved complaints filed within the city or state consumer protection agency or Better Business Bureau?
- Does the company or individual carry a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?

CSIA, Consumers Union and others refer consumers to the listing of CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps® at Choosing a company with certified sweeps may greatly increase a consumer’s chance of getting a good job done, but certification is not necessarily a guarantee of good workmanship. “The ‘not so reputable’ guy has now gotten CSIA certified, reducing the value of the credential,” wrote Bill Ryan (William Ryan & Son Chimney, Landing, NJ) recently in a post to the Chimneys-L Internet discussion group.

False claims of certification present another difficulty. While current certification can be verified by checking the list on the website, this doesn’t prevent some companies from claiming it without ever having had it, or continuing to claim expired certification, and using the official logo in their advertising and on their trucks.

“There are several logo violators in the phone book here,” Ryan wrote, “but since you can’t get an address, you can’t file a complaint. These guys are not stupid.”

Interference with Legitimate Business
A veteran chimney sweep in Connecticut believes that he has evidence of chimney scammers going beyond simply defrauding their own customers, but interfering with his business as well. He thinks his answering machine has been “phreaked” by chimney scammers.

“Phreaking is the use of a computer modem and ‘war-dialer’ program to send out a long string of numbers that breaks the answering machine security code and allows messages to be listened to or erased,” he explained. “People were saying that they left a message but I never returned their call, or that they were telemarketed right after calling me.”

This sweep now pays the local phone company to handle his voice mail.  “I get perfect security and sound clarity,” he said.

Raise the Bar
How do legitimate chimney specialists deal with scammers who claim to offer the same necessary, potentially life-saving services they work diligently to provide?

“It doesn’t really bother us,” Bill Ryan wrote. “It just seems to make more work in the end. I spend a lot of time fixing someone else’s mistakes.” He suggested that “in the end, those that raise the bar will succeed.”

Editor’s Note: See our Back Page Freebie from November 2004, “Beware of Chimney Scams.”


This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of The Chimney Sweep News (SNEWS).
The Chimney Sweep News is an independent trade journal for professional chimney service specialists.
Subscriptions to The Chimney Sweep News are available by calling 541-882-5196.





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