The moving industry packs in nearly 55 percent of its business during the summer months, but often leaves a trail of frustrated consumers in its wake. The Department of Transportation receives up to 4,000 household moving complaints annually, mostly about loss and damage, poor service, or overcharging. The Council of Better Business Bureaus, meanwhile, reports that complaints about movers jumped from nearly 3,800 in 1997 to more than 9,200 in 2007.
Just ask Spyro Malaspinas, a victim of a botched move. He says that Nation Van Lines, which he hired to move his belongings from Austin, Tex., to Chicago in January 2003, hiked his bill from an estimate of $1,050 to nearly $4,300. The movers, according to Malaspinas, said his goods measured 500 cubic feet more than anticipated. When Malaspinas threatened to call the police, the drivers made off with his possessions, which he estimates were worth $47,000. Despite an FBI investigation and the March arrest of Nation owner Eli Peretz by the FBI for alleged crimes with another moving company, Malaspinas wasn t thrilled with the final results: He only got back around $25,000 and never saw his belongings again. The experience was paralyzing, he says. It s not like somebody stealing your wallet; they have stolen everything you ve got. (Peretz s lawyer did not return our calls; Nation Van Lines has since gone out of business.)
Eli Peretz wasn t the only mover rounded up by the FBI in March 2003. The feds indicted a total of 16 moving companies and 74 operators, owners, and employees on various charges following a two-year investigation called Operation Stow Biz. It is the most significant crackdown that we ve done, says a spokesperson for the FBI s Miami division, whose undercover agents posed as potential customers to trap movers committing fraud, money laundering, and other acts. Among those indicted were 20 officers and employees of Sunrise, Fla. based Advanced Moving Systems. The charges in the 60-count indictment include fraud, extortion, false documentation, and inflating the price of the move and, thereafter, withholding delivery of . . . goods until [customers] paid the inflated price.
Too bad Patrick and Tammy Runion didn t get advance word of Advanced s alleged practices. The couple booked the company for their move from Toledo, Ohio, to Lake Forest, Calif. Patrick says that Advanced movers locked their stuff in storage in Chicago when he refused to pay an additional $500 because the load s weight had been miscalculated by a driver. We were so stressed and frustrated by the ordeal, says Patrick, who eventually paid $1,000 to find the storage space. Attempts to contact Advanced officials were unsuccessful, and the company has since gone out of business. According to the FBI, 10 of the indicted employees are listed as fugitives; the other 10 have pleaded not guilty to charges as of press time.
While the FBI sting did manage to take some bad guys out of play, Robert Julian, bureau chief for the Economic Crimes Division in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., doesn t think consumers should breathe easy. Scammers are tough to stop. Local police hesitate to get involved in moving disputes because they re considered civil matters, and while the FBI will investigate complaints involving interstate moves, getting property back is not its priority.
There are also federal laws to contend with that, historically speaking, have tended to protect moving companies more than consumers. It used to be, for example, that while dissatisfied customers could sue their moving company for goods lost in a move, they stood very little chance of recovering even their basic monetary value, let alone winning any punitive damages on top of that amount. But the advent of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act in 2005 has given consumers and the federal government more authority in going after scofflaw movers; it has helped the agency greatly in curbing abuses in the industry, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Today movers are being held liable in a way they never were before for at least replacing the value of lost items so long as the customer opted for full-value protection for their belongings in the initial moving contract. For more information, visit the FMCSA s website at www.protectyourmove.gov.
In June 2002, Carole and Doug Stowers contracted with Elite Van Lines to transport the contents of their threebedroom house from Palm City, Fla., to Bailey, Colo. Nothing unusual there, right? Guess again. Elite then subcontracted the job to other companies for the cross-country trip. The Stowers were shocked when Majesty Moving & Storage pulled up to their new home with only half their possessions and didn t know what had happened to the rest after all, they hadn t loaded the goods.
Beware: In the hectic summer months, a mover might get so busy that it asks another company to help out with a job. That s fine, but the consumer should be notified in advance of the deal. A spokesperson for the American Moving and Storage Association says, For a completely different company to show up at your house with no prior arrangements, that is totally unacceptable. No need to tell Carole Stowers that. She shelled out $5,375 to Elite the original estimate was $1,700 to get all her possessions back. We almost went bankrupt trying to save our furniture, she says. (Both Majesty and Elite have since gone out of business.)
Even if one company does handle your entire move, don t assume that the movers who show up are actual employees of that company. Moving companies have been known to hire day laborers plucked off the streets on moving day. Peter Drymalski, investigator for the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs in Maryland, says for smaller movers, That s probably the rule rather than the exception, because they often don t have regular crews. The problem is that inexperienced workers are more likely to damage possessions.
Similarly, many moving companies contract with independent truck drivers a concern if the mover arrives in an unmarked rental truck. That s a red flag, indicative of a fly-by-night operator with limited fixed assets who would be difficult to go after in court. Swing by the company s offices before you choose a mover. If the company doesn t appear to have its own trucks, do yourself a favor: Cancel the job.
Moving can test even the most timeconscious planner. For instance, it may be tempting to bypass getting an inhouse and written estimate from a mover, opting instead to save a few minutes with a telephone or online estimate. But if you take the shortcut, be prepared to get burned. Tim Walker thought he d caught a break when he booked a mover online who gave him a lowball quote of $1,800 for a Virginia to Nevada move. But once his goods were on the truck and measured in cubic feet, Walker says, the price was jacked up to $5,012. He could pay only the original amount, so the movers held his belongings until he ponied up the cash six weeks later.
With an in-house estimate, you re likely to get a more precise idea of the cost. But you also need to consider how the mover is reaching that estimate is it by total weight or by cubic feet? Go the weight-based route, if possible. That will at least entitle you to witness all weighings. Also, it s pretty easy to check your bill to see if you ve been overcharged. Simply divide the total weight by the number of items. If the average amount per item is more than 35 to 45 pounds, there s cause for suspicion. The trouble with cubic-foot pricing is that actual charges could depend on how the mover packed your items.
Understand this: There are many ways for movers to squeeze extra dollars from customers. Besides charges for accessorial services, movers have been known to levy exorbitant fees for such things as packing supplies. Sound petty? Sure, but they can add up. According to the American Moving and Storage Association (AMSAS), you can knock off some of these costs by packing your own nonbreakables, but movers may be reluctant to take responsibility for items they didn t pack.
There are also charges related to the specific circumstances of a move. You might get dinged for a long carry, when the distance the movers have to haul your belongings from their truck to your door exceeds a certain limit; this is often applied in cities, where movers can t always secure parking directly in front of a residence, for example. Then there s the flight charge for having to lug goods up and down stairs in the absence of elevators.
You just have to make sure you know all of these costs up front so you re not surprised at the end, says a spokesperson for the National Endowment for Financial Education, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting financial security and education. If you start to incur these separate charges that weren t estimated before, you re going to have sticker shock.
Thinking of moving during the last 10 days of June, July, or August? Think again. Those are the busiest moving days of the year. Still, moving companies will often overbook just to keep you from taking your business elsewhere. Consider what happened to Jenna Callahan. She was scheduled to move from Boston to West Chester, Pa., in July, but the movers never showed up. I lost a lot of time and sanity, she says.
But it doesn t only happen at peak times. In January 2002, Tyrone Kelley was set to move from Stoughton, Mass., to Las Vegas, but the movers didn t arrive until 6 p.m., seven hours late. Says Kelley, It s a common tactic to arrive after business hours so that it s too late for you to find another moving company. He wishes he had, because U.S. Movers charged him more than double the estimate due to allegedly wrong weight calculations. They also locked his stuff in storage when he didn t have cash to pay for the job. It took three months to persuade the local police to serve a search warrant on the storage facility so he could reclaim his stuff. U.S. Movers executive vice president, Tom Timen, denied the weight was false, saying Kelley had more than twice the number of items listed on the estimate. All we asked was to be paid for the services he agreed to, Timen said in 2003. U.S. Movers has since gone out of business.
Remember Carole Stowers? When she and her husband finally got their belongings back from Elite Van Lines, much of her furniture was battered and broken. The insurance adjuster from Crawford & Co. estimated $13,642 worth of damage. But little good that did she was entitled to just over $2,000 recompense. The reason? A mover s liability coverage, known as valuation, doesn t work like a typical insurance policy. For interstate moves, standard valuation limits the carrier s liability to no more than 60 cents per pound, and it s often less for in-state moves. So if your 50-pound plasma screen TV gets smashed, you ll collect just $30.
The AMSA estimates that one in five moves involves a claim for damage. That said, you re better off getting some real protection say, through a rider on your homeowner s insurance. At the end of the move, look over your possessions carefully before signing a receipt. If you sign and later discover a huge dent in your Chippendale dresser, the mover will point to the receipt as proof that the dresser was fine when he dropped it off.
James Balderrama called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in June 2001 to register a complaint about his belongings being seized by a mover. Good idea. Too bad he didn t get a return call until 10 months later. The agency, a Department of Transportation division that oversees safety, licensing, and regulation of trucks and buses, has only eight full-time investigators to police roughly 4,000 companies.
With so little manpower, the FMCSA lacks the muscle to rein in rogue movers. The agency fined 117 carriers in 2007 at an average amount of $13,000 per carrier chump change for an industry that brings in $10 billion annually. And companies that do get censured often remain defiant. Typically, they will not pay the fine; instead, they close down and reopen under a different name, says an FMCSA spokesperson. Until regulators toughen up, take the FMCSA s advice: Educate yourself before you hire a mover. Once you hire one, most of the time it s too late for us to do anything to help.