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Scam Alert: Winter Warnings

With apologies to William Shakespeare, now indeed is the winter of our discontent.

That’s because some of the biggest snow jobs that homeowners can face are the promises made by shady providers of winterizing services. But smart consumers can protect themselves by knowing what danger signs to look for:

Snow removal

“It happens every year without fail: Homeowners pay in advance for snow removal service, only to learn—after a snowstorm—that the company has disappeared or just doesn’t show up,” says Sue McConnell of the Better Business Bureau in Cleveland, a city known for its monster snowfalls. “Or when it does, shoddy work is done.”

Last winter, one such company—TPC Snow Services—fleeced scores of Ohioans who paid up to $625 upfront for a season’s worth of snow removal. “But after a snowstorm, the customers were left to dig themselves out,” says McConnell. “In one case, after we got 30 inches of snow, an elderly resident reported that a TPC truck pulled into her driveway … only to turn around and drive off in the other direction, without doing any work that she paid for.”

McConnell says the company’s president, who also had a construction company that generated BBB complaints, “has since disappeared.” Other snow removal services have generated similar no-show or shoddy-work complaints.

Furnace repair

Another popular scam: Advertisements offering a heating system tune-up or inspection. Callers answer the ad only to be told their systems need replacement or extensive repair. In Michigan, state officials say, some older residents have been scammed for as much as $30,000 in needless heating and cooling equipment.

“They’ll tell you your heat is about to give out, or you’re in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning,” says McConnell. “Be suspicious of anyone who immediately red-tags your furnace and says you need a new one. You can always get a second opinion or a carbon monoxide detector.”

Duct cleaning

With windows shut tight, cleaning your heating ducts of accumulated dust and grime seems a smart idea. “But be suspicious of companies that offer a low-ball price to get inside the door, and then try to upsell you with promises of doing more rooms or a better cleaning for more money,” says McConnell.

Another red flag: When contractors show up with little more than a Shop-Vac or home vacuum cleaner. Duct cleaning by reputable companies will cost several hundred dollars and involve sophisticated equipment, including air compressors, large suction hoses and brushes.

Protecting yourself

How can you ensure that you’re hiring an honest contractor to help keep your home warm, dry and safe this winter, rather than a rogue rip-off repairman? Here are some simple steps:

• Do a background check. Don’t hire a contractor—for winterizing or any other services—solely on the basis of flyers or phone book ads. Get written estimates from several contractors and check each company’s BBB Reliability Report at the national group’s website or through your local chapter. Avoid contractors who’ve been the subject of numerous complaints or who are not listed at all.

• Get specifics in writing. Your contract should specify services to be provided and include such details as the start and end dates for snow removal, a backup plan if a plow truck breaks down, and cleanup of any lawn damage the company causes.

• Seek references you know. It’s not enough to get company-provided references (that rave reviewer could be the owner’s brother); seek referrals from your friends and neighbors.

• Avoid upfront payments. It’s generally wiser to pay as you go for ongoing services.

Seek (and check) licenses. Mechanical contractors doing heating and cooling repair usually must have state-issued licenses. Request a copy and check the license number with your state’s contractor licensing agency.

Report dishonest contractors to your local BBB and consumer protection agency.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).

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