Losing your hard-earned money to some fly-by-night operation is no joke, but with the start of spring, scammers are certainly gearing up.

"Offers for chimney repair, magazine sales, driveway paving, meter reading, and even this year's Census provide plenty of opportunity for door-to-door schemers to try to separate consumers from their money or personal information," says Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. "It's important that consumers be extra careful and vigilant."

As fireplaces and furnaces are retired for the season, chimney sweeping and repair scams will likely increase.

"Don't ever hire a chimney sweep who shows up uninvited," Farrell said. "Talk to friends and relatives or search the business pages to find someone who has established roots in the community. You want a chimney sweep whose word you can trust."

While chimney sweeping is not considered home improvement, the chimney sweep may find problems needing repair. Chimney repairs are home improvement, and anyone offering to perform chimney repair or replacement must have a Connecticut home improvement registration.

"A chimney sweep who finds problems shouldn't be hired to do repairs the same day," Farrell said. "It's a separate job and you should take time to find the best contractor for the job. If your chimney sweep is qualified and appropriately registered, invite him or her to provide you with a bid like any other contractor you consult. There's a three-day right of cancellation on home improvement contracts, so legitimately, no chimney work should take place for the first three days after you and a contractor sign."

Anne of Bohemia, NY, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she had the liner in her chimney replaced by Safe-T-Check Chimney the same day the furnace was cleaned out. "Shortly after we turned off the boiler for the season and after we started using it this season we noticed soot coming from the boiler and soot mixed with water coming from the pipe leading to the chimney. Called Safe-T-Check Chimney to come and evaluate, said the problem was not theirs."

Further investigation, she says, determined that the chimney draft is too low -- the liner is 5 1/2" diameter, which is undersized. "Called Safe-T-Check again, told he would come back out to evaluate, never showed up. I am left with an unsafe chimney/draft problem. Would like $1,4000.00 refund for what I paid for."

In upcoming weeks and months traveling pavers pushing underpriced, inferior driveway paving and sealing services are likely to show up on your doorstep.

"Unsuspecting consumers can get flattened by these smooth-talking scam artists, not only losing their money, but being left with a pile of rubble where their driveways used to be," Farrell said.

Vehicles used by traveling pavers are often unmarked utility trucks and vans; salespeople circulate brochures door to door, and their sales pitch usually indicates that asphalt they have left over from a nearby job is available to you immediately, at a bargain price. High-pressure sales tactics, haphazard contracts and a request for payment in cash or personal check made out to cash, are all red flags.

"If something or someone seems suspicious, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and report it to your local police department," Farrell said. He offered the following additional tips.

Always get a signed and dated contract for the work, since it will protect you from potential damages or misunderstandings. Insist that the following items be included in writing:

• the date the contract was signed

• a start date and end date for the job

• the price, (you can request that labor and materials be broken out separately)

• the contractor's name, address and home improvement contractor number (HIC number)

• a 3-day Notice of Cancellation that allows you 72 hours to change your mind. You should also see clear instructions on how to contact the company to cancel that contract - a correct phone number, fax number, and/or mailing address must be provided.

"All of these items are required by law to be in a home improvement contract, to provide maximum protection to the consumer," Farrell said. "The three day right-to-cancel actually prevents a contractor from legally beginning the job on the day you sign the contract," Farrell said. "Don't be pressured by anyone who needs to get started right away."

Likewise, be cautious with people selling products door to door like furniture, magazine subscriptions, cleaning aids and similar items. Consumers should check with local police to be sure they know that home solicitation is taking place in town.

If you decide to buy from a door-to-door solicitor, pay with a check and make it out to the company, not to the salesman or to cash. Consumers who order products from a door-to-door salesman also have a three-day right to cancel, so be sure to get a contract or receipt with contact information in case you change your mind.

To avoid getting burned, a savvy consumer will know what to look for and what to avoid in a home improvement contractor .