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Video: Rossen reports: Are chimney cleaners taking advantage?

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updated 10/11/2012 2:35:50 PM ET 2012-10-11T18:35:50

The Rossen Reports hidden cameras roll again, this time putting chimney companies to the test. What really happens when you call them to inspect your fireplace? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

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The weather's getting cold, and this is the time of year we love to cozy up in front of the fireplace. But experts say, if your chimney's not in good condition, it can be dangerous — even set your house on fire. That's why you hire chimney companies, to make sure everything is safe. So we went undercover...and had some inspect our chimney. Would we get burned?

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

We rented a home in suburban New York with a fireplace and chimney in good working condition. We knew because we had three certified chimney experts inspect it from top to bottom using high-tech cameras, inspecting the stones for water damage, even going on the roof to check the cap and crown.

We had the chimney swept and re-caulked. We even brought in one of the nation's top experts: Ashley Eldridge, a director at the Chimney Safety Institute of America. He confirmed that our chimney was in good shape.

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We wired our house with 11 hidden cameras, putting them in birdhouses, on the roof, even in the fireplace itself. Then we had a mom named Melissa pose as a new homeowner.

We had Melissa call eight companies, telling them she wanted a full safety inspection. One by one the chimney techs arrived. We were in a control room in the basement, watching with our expert.

"I just want to make sure I have a full inspection, just moved in recently and I have kids," Melissa told one tech.

"I gotcha, I'm a father of four," the tech replied. "I know where you're coming from."

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

After inspecting the chimney, he told Melissa: "Honestly, this thing is pretty clean ... you're in really good shape with this thing."

In fact, four more companies turned up no problems at all. But the next company had a  different opinion: "Yes, this is dirty."

Cleaning it was included in their inspection at no extra charge, so we let them. They said it was safe: "You can use it today."

But if everything was fine, why did two companies find problems that would cost us? One tech did a quick inspection, then had some scary news: "All this right here, I want to get this up ... that is what can start chimney fires."

A chimney fire? Our expert said that what he was pointing at was just harmless debris that couldn't start a fire. The charge for the cleaning and inspection: $139.

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We asked the tech: "Three certified experts looked at this chimney, it was just swept recently and hasn't been used since, and they say it's in good shape. So why are you charging $139 to sweep this chimney?"

"My boss told me that if it needed to be cleaned, to clean it," he said.

"Did he tell you to clean the chimney whether it needed it or not?" we asked.

His boss later told us he never tells his employees to do unnecessary work, and asked to check our fireplace himself: "That is dirty," he said. Our expert acknowledged it could have been cleaner, but the amount of debris didn't even come close to warranting a cleaning. The boss admitted his tech had only a week of experience and could have been mistaken, but still stood behind him.

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The next company took the repair list to a new level: "First, I think we should clean the chimney, which is $125." The tech also said Melissa needed a new ash door, because it was rusted shut: "$150 for the door in the bottom." And she needed waterproofing "to water-seal the chimney ... which is $475."

He said the waterproofing was necessary to fix a water problem: "If you let that go, this is gonna look like hell after a while."

But our expert said the white stuff he was pointing to was just part of the stone, not evidence of a water problem.

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"The cleaning needs to be done, the waterproofing needs to be done, and the door needs to be done," the tech insisted. His total price: $750.

"I'm a reputable company, and this is what I'm thinking," he said. He told us he wasn't pushing our mom; just making recommendations.

"You're the expert: You tell this mom it has to be done, of course she's going to believe you," we said. "But our expert says it's in good shape right now, doesn't need the water seal, doesn't need the cleaning, and doesn't need that door."

"I gotta go," the tech said. Then he got agitated and hit our camera: "Get out of my face!"

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His boss later told us he agreed with his tech — the chimney needed those repairs — and that his company has many very satisfied customers.

But our expert, Ashley Eldrridge, said in this industry, there's little regulation: "Anyone who chooses to become a chimney sweep can, with no formal training at all.”

The best advice? Experts say: Look for companies with techs certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Video: Rossen reports: Are chimney cleaners taking advantage? (on this page)

Experts also say: Get your chimney inspected once a year, to catch any problems before they become serious. If you use your fireplace a lot and never get it swept, a flammable substance called creosote can build up inside and can cause a house fire. Your chimney structure can also fall apart over time, so if it's your first inspection, ask the chimney sweep company to check it from top to bottom, inside and out.

To look for chimney techs certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, click here.

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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