We are a nation on the move. More than 15 million American families will pull up roots in any given year. Unfortunately, some of them will end up victims of scam or "rogue" movers.
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What's the worst that can happen? "You lose everything you own," warns Melissa Sullivan of moving company Mayflower. "Or a mover might refuse to deliver your belongings until you pay a much higher price than estimated."
It's not a small problem. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is the watchdog over interstate movers. They received 1,997 complaints in 2010, many of them about so-called "hostage loads," where rogue movers hold customers' possessions in undisclosed warehouses while demanding thousands of dollars in additional payments.
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"Holding your belongings hostage isn't legal," says the FMCSA's Duane DeBrunye. "If you pay 110 percent of the estimated price, federal law requires the mover to complete delivery."
That's not to say the moving company can't tack-on additional charges if the estimate was low. At least you'll get your things, and then have the chance to dispute a revised amount.
The FMCSA has prosecuted and fined moving companies for failing to respect your rights during a move. Their website allows you to verify if a mover is licensed, and also includes a checklist to help you detect rogue movers. Here are some of the red flags:
- The mover gives an estimate sight-unseen or demands a large cash deposit before the move.
- The mover doesn't give you a copy of "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move," as required by federal regulations.
- The mover's website has no local address or licensing info.
- The telephone is answered with a generic "movers" or "moving company," rather than a company name. Many unscrupulous outfits use multiple names to avoid be tracked down by angry victims.
- On moving day, a rental truck arrives rather than a company-owned or marked fleet truck.
Before you sign on the dotted line for your next move, Mayflower's Sullivan suggests that you get multiple estimates and not simply go with the lowest price.
Sullivan warns that unscrupulous movers will often try to suck you in with an unbelievable deal. "If you get three estimates and one of them is way below the others, that may indicate a deal that's too good to be true," she says.
Sullivan offers these additional tips if you're planning to hire movers:
- Be sure movers are who they say they are. Some disreputable outfits try to lure customers in by using names that are very similar to reputable companies.
- Get referrals. Word of mouth is the strongest indicator of reliability.
- Get an in-home estimate. Charges are based on weight and the distance of the move.
- Don't pay up front. Reputable companies request payment at the time of delivery.
- Get everything in writing. Make sure the contract includes exact price estimates, pickup and delivery dates, and insurance amounts.
To help consumers separate the credible from the crooks, the American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA) is promoting a new ProMover certification program. "It's one thing to go shopping on the Internet for pizza," said AMSA Director of Public Relations John Bisney. "But you shouldn't put the whole of your belongings in the hands of the first name from a Google search." To earn the ProMover logo, movers must meet certain standards and pass criminal background checks.
Help may be available even if you've already crossed paths with a rogue mover. Mayflower and United Van Lines have launched a program called MoveRescue aimed at helping victims of disreputable movers. Information can be found at moverescue.org.
Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.
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