Relay: Flue Season Scam

"It’s time to have your chimney cleaned!”

I think I have just escaped being victimized by a new scam, which popped down the chimney, so to speak, right in time for the flue season.

The call came in Friday on the landline, in itself a red flag — the plumber is almost the only one who still uses that number — but it had a 631 area code and I took it. “Hello?”

“Hello again!” (Chirpy young-male voice.) “It’s Jackson with Priority Cleaning, calling to remind you that it’s time to have your chimney cleaned!”

“Thanks, but we don’t use our fireplace.” (We used to, years ago, but the living room would get smoky and you’d have to open the windows in the middle of November and then someone needed to stay up late to make sure nothing was left burning, and after a while we got older and the logs got heavier and the game didn’t seem worth the candle.) 

As if I hadn’t spoken, he went on. “It’s been four years since we cleaned your chimney.”

“We haven’t used our fireplace in 30 years. We don’t make fires,” I repeated. 

“It says here that we cleaned your boiler in 2014.” The voice on the phone was polite.

“I don’t remember that. It must be a mistake.” (Could I have forgotten? Nah. I may not know what I had for dinner last night but I remember stuff like when the freezer was last de-iced. Besides, our fuel company, Miller-McCoy, cleans the boiler.) “Where are you calling from?”

Westhampton, he answered promptly. We went back and forth some more for a minute or two. Jackson not only sounded absolutely sure of what he was saying, but also — oh, dear — increasingly solicitous, as if wondering whether he was dealing with an Alzheimer’s case at the other end of the line.

“We will bring a copy of your 2014 receipt when we come,” he said finally. “And the charge will be the same, $59.99.”

I wavered. This guy seemed so certain of himself, and evidently so concerned that we might decide one ditzy night to make a fire after all and set the house ablaze, that I was about ready to cave in, when he again mentioned the boiler.   

“I don’t understand. Are you coming for the boiler or the chimney?”

Both, he said.

“The boiler has its own chimney?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That’s funny, I thought, I never knew that.

Then it occurred to me to ask if they’d have to come inside the house.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What for?”

“To get to the foot of the chimney, by the boiler,” he explained patiently, as if he were talking to a 7-year-old.

“But, but, the boiler’s in the basement, not in the house. There’s a Bilco door — it’s outside!”

Even that hurdle he smoothly leaped over. “Oh, yes, now I see it written here!”

Befuddled, I heard myself agreeing to have them come the next Monday morning, and hung up. We’d had a story in The Star about a man in Northwest whose roof burned down because he hadn’t had the chimney cleaned, and the fire chief took the occasion to remind everyone it was Fire Prevention Week. Maybe if we didn’t have to think about the flue, we’d make a fire sometime after all. Who knows?

Then reason, a.k.a. Google, kicked in. “Priority Cleaning,” I typed. “Westhampton, NY.” 

Nothing. There were four chimney cleaners in Westhampton Beach, none of them by that name, and one home-cleaning service advertising that “Your trust and security are our PRIORITY.” I tried again, this time with just “Priority Cleaners,” and got a whole slew of companies from North Carolina to California, but nothing within 100 miles of the South Fork.

Finally, I called the number he’d given me. The call didn’t go through the first time; then it was forwarded to another number, which announced that its mailbox was full. 

When I tried again later, though, it took my message: “I’m calling to cancel an appointment. . . . If someone shows up here on Monday I will call the police.”

And no one did.

Irene Silverman is The Star’s editor at large.