The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

September 29, 2012

Chimney scammers: Don’t be smoked by con artists

By Joanne Arbogast

The Daily Item


With temperatures starting to drop, it’s time to prepare furnaces, fireplaces and chimneys before turning on the heat. How can you be sure your chimney is clean and safe for use? The best way is to have a chimney-cleaning service check it out and the best chimney sweep to use is someone local, with an established reputation.

Sharon, 83, of Selinsgrove, said she’s always had her fireplace and chimney taken care of by Glenn Holler Chimney Sweep of Middleburg. But she’s now living with her daughter and son-in-law and when they received a call in May from a company called Pro-Energy Maintenance offering to have their chimney checked for only $140, they thought “Why not?”

According to the nonprofit Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), rates for chimney cleaning vary from region to region and job to job but as a rule, a basic Level 1 chimney inspection and sweeping should cost no more than $300. Glenn Holler charges $150 for that same service but agrees that as a national average of $300 is “not a bad price.”

But Sharon and her daughter did not think to call Holler.

The same month Sharon and her family were approached, Sunbury police were warning residents of scammers pretending to be from Pro-Energy Maintenance, which is an actual chimney maintenance company based in New York state. Police said callers were claiming the Sunbury Fire Department was requiring residents to have their chimneys cleaned. At that time, Sunbury Fire Chief Mike Rhoads reported it was a scam and that while the fire department “recommends you get your chimneys cleaned, we do not contract to any business to do so.”

Two men soon arrived at Sharon’s house and went up to clean the oil burner chimney. They weren’t up there very long, Sharon said. Afterward, the men gave them a list of other things that needed to be done to the chimney, including a new liner, and quoted an additional price of $1,700. Mother and daughter gave the men the go-ahead.

Sharon saw the liner in the yard and thought it looked too small, and again, the pair didn’t spend much time doing the work.

“Mr. Holler would work much, much longer and really takes his time to make sure everything is done properly,” Sharon said.

She told her daughter something seemed “screwy.”

When the men came for payment, they wanted cash.

“I’m retired and my daughter had surgery and hadn’t worked in a year,” Sharon said. “We didn’t have that kind of cash on hand.”

They ended up accepting $800 from Sharon and a check for the rest from her daughter.

As soon as they left, Sharon had her daughter call her bank and cancel the check for the remainder.

“I’m not stupid,” Sharon said. “I never thought we’d be scammed, but we were.”

In addition to ripping people off with quickly-done unneeded services, scammers use poor quality materials and designs which can end up costing the customer more to have repaired.

“Then, when people call for a remedy,” Holler said, “no one is there to answer the phone.”

Holler, who has been in business for more than 35 years, said the men really “botched the job” and Sharon’s chimney needs extensive repairs.

His best advice is to “deal with local people.” While they may vary, the local chimney cleaning services have been in business a long time, are reputable and support each other.

“These are the people who are part of the community,” he said.

Also, “around here, no one in the chimney service ’cold calls’ for business because they already have established customer bases.” His customer base alone is around 3,000 — he is busy enough and doesn’t need to go out and find more customers.

Still, “My customers tell me they are getting called three or four times a month from companies out of town who will be in the area offering cheap serves or saying they’ve bought me out,” he said.

It’s been going on for the past three or four years but has “really stepped up in the last year.”

With the weather turning cooler, this is where Sharon is today. Her daughter contacted the Attorney General’s office months ago but hasn’t heard anything since. They still hope to get their money back.

“That’s what we’re waiting for,” Sharon said, “to pay for the chimney repairs that now need to be made.”

n Have you been scammed? If you think you have, contact the police and the  Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Bureau of Consumer Protection, at (800) 441-2555. Let us know so we can help others avoid finding themselves in a similar situation. Send your story to Joanne Arbogast at The Daily Item, 200 Market St., Sunbury, PA. 17801, or jarbogast@dailyitem.com.

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