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phone_solicitation_homeowner(MCT)—Question: We received an unsolicited phone call for chimney cleaning and inspection. Since we had been considering getting this service done anyway, I listened to the sales pitch (the company was going to be working in our area in a few weeks) and it sounded interesting.

The caller said his company was licensed and workers were bonded. Then I asked for the company’s license number and a previous customer or two that I could contact as a reference.

The caller said that he didn’t have the license number available, but that the workers would have it when they showed up.

He also said that current privacy rules prevented him from giving us contact information for previous customers.

I know there are lots of rules about who has access to health-related information these days, but was this caller being truthful about not providing previous customers as references?

I declined to use the company.

Answer: You were correct in doing so. I would have gone a bit further, however, taking down the information and calling the 800 number of the state consumer affairs division to report these people immediately.

Fortunately, the no-call list prevents me from getting most of these kinds of calls, and I suggest you look into it.

Sadly, it hasn’t stopped the “there’s nothing wrong with your credit but …,” inquiries from alternative providers of electricity, solicitations from charities I’ve never heard of, or robocalls from Bill Clinton on Election Day.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which oversees consumer protection, reported on March 20 that “there has been a rash of overly aggressive and dishonest sales pitches” in several communities from electrical-generation companies.

The state Bureau of Consumer Affairs receives 50,000 complaints a year for everything from shoddy construction to violation of the no-call law.

New privacy laws? Give me a break. Most top-flight contractors and repair people are polite enough to ask customers if they’ll recommend them to others, but I’ve never heard of any concerned about privacy when a good word will secure a job.

The best and most reliable contractors get their business by word of mouth.

My plumbers on both sides of the river, my electrician, the guy who sanded my porch floor, my furnace repair person — all were recommended by friends, neighbors, or contractors who used them.

That said, you have to make sure those recommending them aren’t their friends or relatives. If contractors are working in your neighborhood, you can ask current customers about them or look at the work firsthand.

But this is a classic example of something consumers should be wary of: telephone solicitations by “contractors” who will be working in your area in a few weeks and that fact alone will benefit you.

The consumer protection agencies in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been warning about the proliferation of these fly-by-night creeps since Sandy raged through the area.

But even in normal times, contractors should provide you with their license number up front so you can check them out with the authorities. In both states, home improvement contractors have to register to work.

There is plenty of information online on how to hire reliable contractors and repair people, and there are groups such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry that can help, too.

Although I have never used them and probably never will, clearinghouses such as Angie’s List are another reliable source of contractors and repair people.

You were right to say forget it to the telephone solicitation. I only wish everyone was as smart as you are.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by MCT Information Services