Don’t Let Movers Hold You Hostage

Few things in life match the stress and expense of a big move – just ask anyone who has recently changed addresses. Each year, about 40 million Americans pick up and move, and many are likely to do so between now and Labor Day.

“Moving is a major decision that can really impact your financial status,” said Paul Golden, spokesman for the Colorado-based National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), which recently issued a list of tips to help make your move a smoother ride.

It’s timely advice, given a recent report issued by the Government Accountability Office on the regulation of interstate moving companies by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). While the majority of moves happen without incident, the GAO reported that about 3,000 consumer complaints were filed against interstate movers last year.

“The really serious complaints are rogue movers or scam movers,” says David Sparkman, vice president of communications for the American Moving and Storage Association, which represents the interstate movers. “These people are thieves who are pretending to be movers.”

In the most classic and prevalent scam, a moving company will give a low estimate to pack someone up only to substantially hike the quoted price once the items are loaded on their trucks. If the consumer doesn’t pay the new price, the belongings are held hostage until the higher moving charges are paid.

Last year, about 15 percent of consumer complaints filed against movers involved hostage goods. In one case, a Massachusetts woman said a mover loaded her goods on a truck and demanded $16,000 afterward.  That was more than four times the company’s estimate of $3,600.

By federal law, interstate moving companies are required to release your belongings to you when you pay 100 percent of the charges in a binding estimate or 110 percent of a non-binding estimate where additional weight or services have caused the final price to increase, according to Tim Walker, who started www.movingscam.com after he was scammed by a moving company.

But rogue companies “aren’t afraid to drive away with everything you own unless you pay them whatever they decide they want to charge you for your move,” Walker said.

Walker, whose Web site is a must-see before you hire a moving company, says his biggest tip for consumers is to be wary of hiring companies you find on the Internet.

The American Moving and Storage Association also has issued warnings about shopping for a mover online. Certainly use the Internet for research. For example, go to www.moving.org, the site run by the industry association. It has advice on how to choose a mover and avoid the scams.

Sparkman said you should be skeptical of Web sites that look good but could be run by dishonest brokers who don’t actually own a moving company. They collect a deposit and then refer consumers to rogue moving companies, he said.

Legitimate referral companies will generally not ask you to pay an upfront deposit, Sparkman said. If you are asked for a significant deposit, you should look for another company.

Walker says that when choosing a company, look locally. Get recommendations from friends and neighbors who have recently moved. Check with local real estate agents, who often keep lists of moving companies.

Be sure to get a written estimate from at least three movers, NEFE recommends. There are binding estimates, in which your final bill cannot go higher than what you’re quoted, and non-binding estimates. A non-binding estimate is not a contract but instead an approximation of the cost of the move, with the final costs based on the actual weight of your shipment and other services provided.

And for goodness sake, don’t get an estimate over the phone. Get a company representative to come to your home to view your belongings.

When the representative arrives, NEFE says you should discuss what services will be provided, the mover’s responsibility for any damages or losses that may occur during the move, and how the business will work with you to settle a dispute.

For interstate moves, the company should provide you with the booklet “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move” produced by FMCSA. You can download a copy of it at www.protectyourmove.gov, which was created by FMCSA. This Web site is another must before you hire a mover. You’ll find details of the regulations that govern interstate movers, a list of registered and insured movers and information on how to file a complaint with the agency. You can also find contact information for issues if you’re moving within the same state. Such moves are not covered by federal regulations.

If you’re one of the millions planning to pack up and relocate soon, especially from one state to another, please use caution in selecting a mover or you might end up curbside with your belongings being held hostage.

By Michelle Singletary