How to smoke out a crooked chimney sweep (© Iztok Grilc/Getty Images)

© Iztok Grilc/Getty Images

As you look to get your chimney serviced, be wary of dishonest sweeps who try to dupe homeowners into unnecessary or shoddy work. (Bing: Search for quality chimney sweeps)

"There are some bad actors in the business," says Ashley Eldridge, director of education at the Chimney Safety Institute of America. "They typically will hire unscrupulous people who are being paid a commission; it's in these people's interest to diagnose huge problems, regardless of whether they exist."

There's no reason for you to settle for a substandard sweep. You can locate a certified sweep on the CSIA website. Certification is no small deal. Eldridge says it requires passing a rigorous exam, including testing about the international residential code, as well as best-practice tools and techniques.

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How do you separate the pros from the pretenders? There are several easy ways. An obvious bad sign is a sweep in an unmarked van or one who requests payment via a check made out to "cash."

Here are three other warning signs:

Lowball bid
The most common red flag is an extremely low estimate. Often a scammer will go door to door, offering a "promotional price" of as little as $20 for an inspection. "Once they get in there, they invariably recommend expensive repairs," Eldridge says.

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Don't take the bait. Ask for a written estimate and say you'd like to get a second opinion; this may send a scammer scurrying.

Cold caller
Another ruse is the cold call. Scammers will talk as if they already have an appointment or say they've serviced other chimneys in your neighborhood and then try to pressure you into inviting them to do an inspection or cleaning. Ask the caller's name and phone number — no honest sweep would refuse to give this info.

Time pressure
The sweep offers a price that is conditional on your making a decision on the spot.

Above all, Eldridge says, trust your gut reaction. "If you don't feel comfortable with this person, then don't do business with them," he says.