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Beware the Frauds of Fall

'Distraction burglaries' and furnace flimflam increase as weather cools

Gutter cleaning - fall is the season for home repair scams

Photo by Getty Images

A "distraction burglar" can slip in your house while an accomplice does a job outside.

En español | As both leaves and temperatures drop, it's prime time for the unaware consumer to fall victim to seasonal home maintenance swindles.

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Here are two of the most common cons of autumn — and how to dodge them.

Watch me, not your valuables. Summer is peak season for break-ins because warm weather means more folks are out and about. But cooler weather is hot for so-called distraction burglaries that occur while you're right there at home but not paying attention.

It works like this: A self-described contractor comes to the door, offering to clean leaf-filled gutters, trim trees or make other fall fix-ups. When you step outside to talk about the job or watch him work, a lie-in-wait accomplice enters your unattended, unlocked door for a quick burglary. Cash from handbags and jewelry from the bedroom are common targets.

In another form of distraction burglary, you remain inside your home. A scammer posing as an employee of the water or electric company lures you away from the door, perhaps on the pretext of needing to go down to the basement to check a meter.

And the newest ploy: A con artist gains entry by claiming to be from a government-sponsored weatherization program. He tells you he's got to take measurements so you can get low-cost insulation. You step with him away from the door … and you know the rest.

In sum, anyone showing up unsolicited at your door and claiming to be a contractor or utility worker should raise your rip-off radar. Don't invite that person in, even if there's a uniform and badge. First verify the visitor's identity by calling the company yourself. If you step outside to talk, always lock the door behind you.

A cleaning and a clean-out. Even if you verify a technician's identity, that's no sure protection against a rip-off.

That's because now is the time when low-ball prices hit high gear in mailed fliers and telephone offers for the most common con of the season, shady service for your home's chimney and furnace.

Bargain prices for cleaning a heating system can be bait for the real clean-out: An "inspection" carried out during the work reveals problems that can cost thousands of dollars and, as the serviceman warns, need immediate attention.

With chimneys, swindling sweeps may allege there's a leak of carbon monoxide, structural damage or a worn-out liner that could cause a fire.

Furnace-cleaning fraudsters may warn of carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as loss of heat in the months ahead, so as to red-tag an immediate replacement.

Either way, you'll want a second opinion. Or do it right the first time, by choosing a company you can trust.

You'll spend about $200 for a chimney cleaning and inspection by a company recommended by your local fire department or the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Expect to pay about $100 for a furnace cleaning. The company that installed your current unit can do the job or refer you. You may also find legitimate companies through the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association that many states have.

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

Also of interest: An alarm system you don't need.

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