Don't fall for fall home improvement scams

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

With autumn on its way, you’re probably thinking about preparing your home for cooler weather. While you do that, scammers are thinking about how take advantage of you. Here are four fall home improvement scams you shouldn't, uh, fall for. In all of these, con artists may advertise using flyers, or by placing ads in newspapers, the phone book, or online. Some use telemarketing, and still others go door to door.

Your ductwork is making your home unhealthy. You’ll probably see lots of ads for ductwork cleaning services. But ductwork cleaning is often unnecessary, and it can even damage your heating system and create a health hazard. In July, the St. Louis-based Better Business Bureau issued an alert about a ductwork cleaning company that consumers complained was advertising low-cost cleaning services and then charging hundreds or thousands of dollars more for additional work. The BBB said consumers reported that the company used high-pressure sales tactics and misrepresented itself as being associated with well-known local companies. Over the years, we’ve seen many similar complaints about ductwork cleaning firms.

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Your chimney needs repairs. Scammers sometimes advertise special discounted rates for chimney cleaning and inspection. Following the inspection, they tell homeowners their chimneys needs expensive repairs, such as liner replacement. They may offer a discount for those that pay with cash. Once they have a victim’s money, they may leave without having done anything, or they may perform shoddy and unsafe work.

Cut your heating costs with a free energy audit. Con artists may advertise “free” energy audits, sometimes misrepresenting themselves as being from the local utility. The goal is to trick you into paying thousands of dollars for items such as insulation or solar blankets for your attic. Another concern is that letting someone you don’t know into your home could be inviting theft or even worse.

Your gutters need cleaning.  Gutter cleaning is particularly difficult for elderly people, who often end up being victimized the most by this con. Someone may offer this service for as little $30. They often go door-to-door, saying they're working nearby and can therefore provide a discount off the usual price. The actual work may be poorly done or, as with the other cons, the scammers may use this as an opportunity to charge for unnecessary repairs.  We’ve seen a couple of cases in which victims reported having their homes burglarized.

Planning a major project? Read "How To Hire a Reputable Remodeling Contractor."

What to do

Get expert advice. When it comes to winterizing your home, some tasks are important, such as having your heating system inspected. Others, including cleaning your home's ductwork, may be unnecessary. If you’re not sure, do some investigating, perhaps by using a Web search. There is lots of advice available from state and federal agencies, industry trade groups, and others. For instance, the EPA provides plenty of information about whether you should have your ducts cleaned and how to choose a reliable company. It also has tips on the steps you should take to make sure your heating system is operating correctly, including, of course, changing filters. The U.S. Department of Energy has advice on home energy audits (There’s a lot more to it than you probably think).

Don’t be victimized by fly-by-night companies. Finding contractors by using ads in your local newspaper or phone book could be inviting trouble. It’s much better to get names of reliable companies from friends or relatives. Be especially dubious if a contractor contacts you. Don’t be lured by claims that the company can offer you a special deal because it’s working nearby or has material leftover from another job.

Check the company’s reputation. Look for a report at the Better Business Bureau. (Don’t rely on the BBB’s letter grade alone. Check the number and types of complaints, if any).  Use a Web search with the company name and such words as “reviews” and “complaints.”

Check for licensing. Depending on the state or locality, some contractors may need to be licensed or registered. And some jobs may require building permits. Consult your town or state consumer agency. In some states, including Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, dealing with a licensed or registered home improvement contractor can make you eligible for reimbursement from state guaranty funds that reimburse consumers for improper or incomplete work.

Don’t pay upfront. Never pay for services in advance. You’re inviting the company to abscond without doing anything. And you can lose your leverage if things go wrong. The same goes for paying by cash or check. Using a credit card is the best way to protect yourself. If a company doesn’t accept credit cards, it could be a sign that it’s a fly-by-night. An exception may be for major projects that cost many thousands of dollars, such as remodeling your home, in which you might need to pay by check.

—Anthony Giorgianni

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