Don't let a shady company put the moves on you

Millions of Americans change residences each year--a new job, getting married, a growing family, or a desire for a better commute are all reasons that people decide to move. The moving industry is big business! Unfortunately, the industry has been dogged by consumer complaints of moving fraud, particularly when the moves are done over long distances. Moving fraud occurs when a moving company quotes one price for a move, loads the goods, and then holds the goods hostage to get more money.

Just this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regulates interstate moving companies, shut down a moving company in Florida due to a number of safety violations, including failing to implement required drug and alcohol tests of drivers and allowing drivers to exceed work hour limits. The company -- Full Service Van Lines -- has also received a significant number of consumer complaints alleging that the company would provide “binding estimates,” over the phone prior to a move but then ask for more money if the drivers found that they were moving more items than had been listed in the estimate. Other complaints alleged that items arrived at their destination weeks of months late, with some items arriving damaged or not showing up at all.

In other cases, consumers looking for estimates from moving companies online have found that while they thought they were dealing with an actual moving company, they were in fact dealing with a lead-generation company. These “lead-gen” companies then sell consumers’ information to actual moving companies who contact the prospective customer to set up the move. The consumer can be left unsure of who they’re actually dealing with if things go wrong. In addition, such “lead-generation” companies may not check whether the companies they’re selling leads to are legitimate moving companies with good track records, or just crooks looking for a quick buck.

Fortunately, consumers do have some protections under the law when it comes time to choose a mover, but it pays to get educated ahead of time. The regulatory agency covering in-state moves varies from state to state. For a list of state agencies with jurisdiction, click here. For interstate moves, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is in charge. The FMCSA has a great website to help consumers move safely at ProtectYourMove.gov.

Regardless of whether you’re moving in-state or between states (or across the globe, for that matter), you should learn to spot the following red flags of potential moving scams:

  • Make sure you get a binding estimate ahead of your move. By law, a moving company cannot charge you more than the estimate unless you add additional items that weren’t listed when the estimate was obtained. If the movers arrive and claim you have more items than how many were in the estimate, get a new estimate, with the additional items listed on it BEFORE they begin loading your items on to the truck.

  • Get an in-person estimate. Be wary of companies that offer you a lowball estimate sight-unseen over the phone or the Internet. If at all possible, make sure the moving company representative comes to the premises ahead of the move and inspects all the items to be moved before they provide the binding estimate. If they’re unwilling to come to your home ahead of time to give the estimate, it’s probably best to find a different moving company that will.

  • Don’t sign an estimate that is incomplete and get a copy before you hand the signed estimate to the moving company. Unless every T is crossed and I is dotted, a scammy mover can change the figures on an estimate to charge you more money than the amount that was agreed on. Without your own copy, you have no documentation to fall back on to prove what the original estimate was.

  • Beware of “phantom” movers. Make sure you know who you’re dealing with BEFORE they start moving your stuff. If a mover arrives in a plain, unmarked truck or if the movers are unable to produce documentation stating the name, address, and phone number of the moving company they work for, it could be a scam. Make sure the company is registered in your state or with the FMCSA. The FMCSA maintains a database of registered interstate movers at this link. Consumers can also check out moving company complaints through the Better Business Bureau.

  • Don’t pay in cash. If the moving company demands cash or a large up-front deposit before the move, it’s a red flag. It’s much better to pay by check or credit card because you can cancel the check or dispute the charge if things go wrong later on in the process. If you pay by cash, there’s little recourse for getting your money back.

  • If something goes wrong, file a complaint! If the complaint involves an interstate move, the complaint can be filed with the FMCSA. If the complaint involves an intrastate move, contact your local state agency.