If you're among the 35 million Americans relocating this year, add the need to avoid cons to the other stressors that result from moving. About 3,600 complaints were filed last year by people who hired interstate movers (out of 800,000 such moves), a 25 percent increase since 2014.
Here's how to reduce the risk of scams.
Say no to low-ball bids. Watch out for rogue movers who get your business with bargain-price estimates. After filling the truck, they hold your possessions hostage until you pay thousands more. "Hostage load" movers tend to be smaller, unlicensed companies that may advertise on Craigslist or roadside signs. You're safer checking listings on moving.org, a website run by the industry's trade group. For moves between states, go to protectyourmove.gov, a federal watchdog website that verifies interstate moving companies' licenses and complaint histories. One way to save is by moving midweek or in the middle of the month, in the fall or winter. Costs are highest at the end of summer months, notes Scott Michael, CEO of the American Moving & Storage Association.
Clues to a ruse. Don't even consider outfits that bid jobs sight unseen, that answer the phone with generic greetings such as "movers" rather than a specific company name (unscrupulous movers use multiple names to elude angry customers), or whose websites list no physical address or information on their registration and insurance. Other red flags: movers who demand upfront cash or large deposits, or say they'll determine charges after loading. Professionals have company-branded vehicles; scammers show up in rental or unmarked trucks.
Prevent ID theft. Risk of identity theft can increase during a move, especially if you're selling your old place. Before an open house, store jewelry and other valuables outside the home or in a locked cabinet. Same goes for sensitive documents, including birth certificates, passports and wills.
During the move, transport these items yourself along with property deeds, car titles, stock certificates and insurance policies. If you can't personally transport computers, use strong passwords. Shred — don't just toss — documents listing your Social Security number, birth date or financial accounts.
Know your paperwork. Keep a copy of everything you sign — especially the "bill of lading," which is a legal document that acknowledges the carrier is in possession of your cargo and serves as a receipt. An "order for service" lists what the mover will do, as well as pickup and delivery dates, and an inventory list shows each item you shipped and its condition (cross-check it after delivery). With nonbinding estimates, movers may be legally allowed to inflate charges about 10 percent. Binding estimates provide a fixed price but tend to be higher. Movers typically provide minimal insurance; before buying replacement-value coverage, check if your homeowners policy covers items lost or damaged during a move.
For interstate moves, Uncle Sam requires moving companies to provide you with a booklet called "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move" and a brochure called "Ready to Move."
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.