As weather turns colder and homeowners begin using their fireplaces again, chimney fires aren't the only hazard they face. This is the time of year the old "chimney repair scam" makes a reappearance.

In New Jersey, the Division of Consumer Protection says it has received 24 consumer complaints related to chimney and fireplace repairs between September 2008 and August 2009.

"Fall is the busy season for cleaning chimneys and removing creosote generated by wood-burning fireplaces. It's also the time of year when consumers should be cautious when someone offers to check their chimney and make repairs," said David Szuchman, New Jersey's Consumer Affairs Director.

In New Jersey -- and in many other states -- anyone offering to perform chimney repairs must be registered as a Home Improvement Contractor under state law. Chimney sweeps who only clean chimneys and do not perform repairs usually don't face such requirements.

Consumers should always demand a written contract that specifies the work to be performed, the materials that will be used and the total price, for any home improvement project costing more than $500.

"It's always a good idea to obtain more than one bid," Szuchman said. "Multiple bids allow consumers to verify that different contractors are finding the same type of problem when each performs an inspection," said.

Consumers should be alert to the following scenarios as possible scams:

• Someone comes unsolicited to your home, offers to do a free inspection of your chimney and offers a "special deal" to fix an alleged problem.

• Someone claims to be "working in the neighborhood" and has leftover supplies to repair your chimney but the work has to be done right away.

• Someone is unwilling to show you the problem area and explain the problem in detail.

In most states, a consumer has the right to cancel a home improvement contract within 72 hours of signing the contract. A consumer should not feel pressured into allowing work to begin immediately.

Consumers who have limited mobility and cannot climb ladders should be cautious about claims of loose bricks or missing mortar if someone goes onto their roof to inspect the chimney.

Consumers also should make sure all required permits have been issued by their municipal construction code office prior to the contractor beginning work.