You may like the idea of a new house, but most people feel about moving the way they feel about a trip to the dentist -- it's one of life's necessary evils. Still, an estimated 37 million Americans do it each year, and about a third will do so between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But moving can be more than a logistical hassle: It you're not careful, you could get bamboozled in a big way.
The Better Business Bureau received more than 8,900 complaints against movers in 2010, a 5% increase over 2009, primarily about damaged or lost goods and final prices in excess of original estimates. In a too-frequent worst-case scenario, reports the BBB, a moving company holds the customer's belongings "hostage" and requires potentially thousands of dollars to unload the van.
Portrait of a Moving Scam Victim
Leslie Davis (not her real name) hired a company to handle her move from New York City to St. Louis last summer. Much to her surprise, the company she chose were just brokers who outsourced the job.
She went through everything in her one-bedroom apartment with the company's representative and got an estimate of $2,733. Shortly before moving, another representative called to "go over the estimate again."
"They wanted to be sure they would have enough space on the truck and they also asked if I would need a shuttle service, which was explained to me as having a second, smaller moving vehicle available if the full-size truck couldn't fit or park on my residential street in Queens," explains Davis.
She said that wouldn't be necessary, but the representative insisted. "He added the $1,500 shuttle fee onto the estimate, which ballooned to $4,439, and said that if the shuttle wasn't used, I obviously wouldn't be charged for it," she says. "That sounded reasonable to me."
When her property was picked up on July 25, she was told it would be delivered in early August, and to expect updated information and the final weight of her goods for the final bill.
"No one called me for the next two weeks. I called several times for a delivery date and final bill amount. Finally, I was told that I owed nearly double the original amount of the estimate! I had already made deposits of $1,700, but my bill was still $3,391! They said I was over the estimated weight by almost 1,000 pounds, which was impossible because we had a healthy estimate and didn't even bring all the furniture that we intended to," says Davis.
Meanwhile, no one knew anything about a shuttle fee, or had an itemized breakdown of her charges. No one would fax or email her the weigh tickets, and no manager returned her calls. "I wanted the bill resolved before delivery," she says.
A Hostage Situation
The moving company showed up with her stuff on Aug. 14. "They demanded the full $3,391 in cash only. We asked the driver if we could speak with his manager over the phone about the bill, and we asked for a re-weigh of our goods in our presence, at a nearby weigh station. The manager refused to speak with me and refused the re-weigh. They also refused to take a credit card payment," says Davis.
The movers drove off with the goods, and placed them in storage at a location they refused to disclose until the bill was paid, she says. Two days later, a manager called her. She was told to wire the full amount, after which she would receive, via FedEx, the storage facility address (reportedly five miles from her home) and keys. The manager also told her there was a shuttle fee on her bill because they had used one, though Davis says they had not.
Davis ended up reaching out to MoveRescue, a program sponsored by Mayflower Transit and United Van Lines that gives free legal help to people who have been scammed by disreputable movers. After MoveRescue negotiated for her, the bill was reduced by nearly $1,000, and her property was released, though it was at a facility 40 miles away in Illinois. "We had to handle the final move ourselves by paying someone different to move our goods out of storage," says Davis.
But her moving saga didn't end there. Items were missing and many were carelessly damaged: a Tiffany lamp with a broken base, a dining table with a broken leg, a broken television and a scratched dresser, to name a few. She had purchased moving insurance, which should have given her $4,500 to cover damages, but when she filed her claim, it was denied because the company said she had a $469.58 balance, despite Davis' written proof that they took that amount off her bill. Today, her claim is still unpaid.
Tips for Finding a Reliable Mover
Stories like Davis' are not unusual.
"Because anyone with a truck and a website can claim to be a mover, our industry is plagued by con artists who don't adhere to standards for honesty and ethical conduct," said American Moving & Storage Association President and CEO Linda Bauer Darr, in a prepared statement. "When it comes to such an important decision, you can prevent a lot of headaches by checking on a company in advance to identify which put customer service and integrity first," she said.
When it comes to moving, do your homework. For starters, check out the AMSA's consumer handbook, Make a Smart Move, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's brochure, Protect Your Memories. Your Money. Your Move. You can also see what the Better Business Bureau has to say about a moving company by visiting www.bbb.org.
Research the company thoroughly. While state regulations vary, all interstate movers must, at a minimum, be licensed by the federal government and assigned a motor carrier number you can verify on FMCSA's website, www.protectyourmove.gov.
Look for the AMSA's ProMover logo. It signifies a quality, professional mover which has pledged to abide by the organization's Code of Ethics and has at least a satisfactory BBB rating, among other things.
Go with a name you know. It's not a bad idea to pick a company that has offices in your area and has been in business for at least 10 years, said Carl Walter, vice president of Mayflower.
Know your rights. Check out the FMCSA's booklet Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move. Be aware: Federal law requires movers give this to you prior to an interstate move.
Don't rely on a verbal agreement. You want to get pick up and delivery dates in writing, as well as an estimate of your costs. "You want documentation on everything you own. That way, should anything go missing en route to your new home, you have proof to show the authorities, the moving company management and your insurance agent," says Scott Pantall, of Blue Spruce Inventory.
Beware of These Danger Signs
Paige Holden, director of Holman Moving Systems, says there are some clues that should send you in the other direction.
Demand for payment upfront: There are only two instances where a legitimate mover will request a down payment. The first is in busy, competitive areas like New York City, where a mover may ask for a minimal deposit ($50 or so) to reserve the truck. They do this for protection: Sometimes people will reserve trucks from multiple companies and use whichever one shows up first. The other reason: If you are paying with a credit card, a mover may place a hold on the account to ensure the available credit will be sufficient to pay the bill. That's not an actual up-front charge, though, and won't appear on your bill: It's more like a reservation on the credit line.
'Mandatory' gratuity: Tipping your movers is like tipping for any other service. Customers should decide what is appropriate, if anything, after the service is completed.
Refusal to do an in-home estimate: Reputable movers will come to the home to see what needs to be moved before giving a final estimate. This is the best way to get an accurate quote. A lot of the internet moving brokers and some movers will argue this process is unnecessary, but the reality is that the good movers still do it.
Cheapest price: Customers who shop by price alone are likely to be buying trouble. Any company advertising itself as a "cheap mover" probably isn't going to provide the best -- or even acceptable -- service. Many scam movers will offer a low price to book the move, then add multiple fees after your goods are on their truck that you'll have to pay in order to get your stuff back. For the most part, that's how the scam works, so the cheapest price should always be a red flag.
It may still end up a stressful process, but with a bit of preparation, moving can be more nuisance than nightmare.