Ded. 30, 2004 -- Sooner or later, homeowners who have chimneys are going to have to get them cleaned, but chimney sweeps who come by with assessments of how much work is required may be blowing smoke.
In coordination with local consumer officials in Nassau County on New York state's Long Island, Good Morning America set up a "rip-off house" with hidden cameras and an undercover homeowner to check up on chimney sweeps' sales tactics as part of an ongoing series. The verdict: Watch out for a hard sell on chimney repairs that may not be necessary.
First, "GMA" had the rip-off house chimney inspected by Ashley Eldridge, the national director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, the national organization that certifies chimney sweeps. Eldridge, recognized as one of the top chimney experts in the country, used a special camera to inspect the chimney.
"What I found was a typical 50-year-old chimney," Eldridge said after climbing up on the roof for the inspection. He found minor problems with the clay liner inside the chimney and recommended removing bricks that were sticking into the chimney near the bottom. But, Eldridge said, the chimney seemed to be working well the way it was.
Superhero Chimney Cleaner?
When "Good Morning America" producers tried to hire someone to do a routine cleaning on the same chimney, they got a different story from two different companies. The first chimney sweep, who was subcontracted by United Chimney of Bohemia, N.Y., had only spent five minutes doing an inspection when he suggested that the chimney was in terrible shape and that it was a job for a superhero: him.
"That's what they call me, the nightmare truck," the chimney sweep said. "I get all the nightmare jobs. They think I wear a cape."
Next, he made a sales pitch, saying that the homeowner should purchase a chimney liner because the chimney was blocked.
"What we're going to have to do is put a stainless liner down it," he said. "And I got to get the blockage out of the base. It's blocked up." The blockage would cost more than $1,000 to repair, and it needed to be fixed right away, he said.
"It'll be $1,300 to put the whole lining down from top to bottom," the chimney sweep told the woman who was posing as the homeowner. "And I'll call my boss. He'll probably let me do it for you today, because you can't leave it like that."
A Chimney Emergency?
Eldridge said that although the chimney in the rip-off house — like many older chimneys — would perform better with a new liner, he saw no urgent need for one.
But the chimney sweep urged the "homeowner" to call her husband at work, and said he would knock $100 off the price and even take a credit card.
In the end, he and his helper charged $49 for a service call, but never actually swept the chimney. Contacted later by Good Morning America, the company stood by the workers' assessment of the chimney.
American Chimney King workers came to clean the chimney at the rip-off house as well, even though they should not have. The company, based in Shirley, N.Y., is licensed to do business elsewhere, but not in Nassau County.
"They've committed a crime which we will seek to prosecute just by the mere fact they showed up at the house today," said Robert Emmons, a prosecutor in the Criminal Fraud Bureau of the Nassau County District Attorney's Office.
The American Chimney King worker, who had been working as a sweep for four months, told the homeowner that the chimney needed a new liner because it was blocked, rotted, and very unsafe. He also hinted that being in the room with the blocked chimney hurt his head because of fumes.
"I got a headache just going right into that room," the chimney sweep said as he stepped out of range of the hidden camera in the furnace room. "I mean it's very bad."
The worker then said that the cost would be $1,800 for the liner — and never mind the $29.99 chimney cleaning.
"I don't even think you should sweep it right now — you might get major blockage," the employee said on the hidden camera.
"If he starts sweeping it, then what's going to happen is: boooosh," he continued, gesturing as though the chimney would collapse.
But Good Morning America's expert disagreed.
"That's simply not true," Eldridge said.
"Good Morning America" confronted the American Chimney King workers and explained that the house was called the "rip-off house … because of people like you."
When asked if they were using scare tactics to sell items that the house does not need, the worker said no. When asked whether he still got a headache from the fireplace, he initially denied it
"I never said I got a — I said I had a headache when I was in the house, correct," he said.
When asked if his headache was from carbon monoxide, the worker said "maybe." Even as they walked out the door, the workers insisted the chimney was in bad shape, and urgently needed work.
When "Good Morning America" contacted American Chimney King, the company stood by what their workers had said, and also said that they are licensed to do business in Nassau County, even though Good Morning Aerica confirmed that they are not.
For more information on how to find a certified chimney sweep in your state, contact the Chimney Safety Institute of America.