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Knock, Knock. Who's Really There?

Ask questions and check credentials before you open your wallet

Now that autumn is on its way, expect an upswing in knocks on your front door by workmen eager to repair your home. Some will spread old motor oil on your driveway and call it "repaving." Others, apparently blessed by x-ray vision that allows them to see water leaks on your ceiling from a passing pick-up, will apply paint to your shingles and claim it's a roof repair.

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service man

Check your handyman's credentials before accepting a deal. — Getty Images

Before you make a deal, take a look at a list of my favorite hucksters.

Woodchucks: Some handymen make shoddy, same-day repairs and flee with their payment, but autumn-pouncing "woodchucks" continue their overpriced home fix-ups until victims are bled dry. They get their name because they usually start with offers to trim trees, having identified older homeowners by reading survivor names on obits and looking for wheelchair ramps or cars with handicapped passes.

"They'll quote a ridiculous price, say $2,000 to remove a few dead limbs, and see if the homeowner complains or tries to haggle," explains Detective Michael Cole of the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department, where woodchucks victimize about 500 older homeowners per year.

If no dickering ensues, they have identified an easy mark. They point out additional problems for more repairs, and may return day after day to clean gutters, reseed lawns, patch roofs and perform other jobs worth a fraction of their quotes.

So don't fall for the "we're in the neighborhood today" line. Get a business card. Look out on the street to see whether there's a truck with a company name. (Avoid contractors who lack either.) Check the company at the Better Business Bureau and in the phone book. And always run an estimate by legit firms and family members and neighbors who have needed similar repairs.

Power company imposters: We're from the electric utility. Care for a free home energy audit? With winter approaching, the promise of lower heating bills is tempting. But unless your utility company gave you advance notice of such a call, it's likely you're dealing with a scam. Same deal with self-described utility workers who claim there's an emergency in the neighborhood and need to check your home's pipes and wiring.

Next: Don't fall for the door-to-door fundraising scam. >>

Their badges may look authentic but remember: Any crook with a printer and laminate machine can produce convincing counterfeits. So don't let anyone into your house until you've verified the visit with a call to the utility company.

Often the goal is burglary, so be especially suspicious when "utility workers" arrive in pairs—one diverts you while the other steals. The same applies to duo woodchucks; one may lure you outdoors while the other does a quick inside job.

Fundraising fraudsters: With school back in session, a number of teenagers go door-to-door with claims they're raising money for team uniforms or school-sponsored charities. Some ask for cash, checks or credit card donations. Others say their fundraising depends on your buying a magazine subscription or some other product.

Some of these kids are legit, some aren't. But no matter what the charitable plea, it's easy to authenticate the sponsoring school or charity with a phone call or on the Internet. If you find it worthy, then mail a check. If door-to-door solicitors don't have materials for review, the smart money is that it's a scam.

Beware of charities you have never heard of, especially those claiming to raise money for wounded vets, police and fire departments, sick or handicapped kids, or the victims of a recent disaster. Those causes are emotional hot buttons for many but are often associated with fake charities.

You may also like: Protect yourself from telemarketing fraud. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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