Sixty-year-old Jenifer Henline sleeps on an air mattress in an apartment in northwest Ohio, getting by with a used couch, borrowed TV and kitchen utensils from a dollar store. Three months after movers packed up her belongings for the 2,300-mile trip from Everett, Washington, her possessions haven't shown up.
Henline, who works in canine physical rehabilitation, lived in greater Seattle for 30 years before she boomeranged back to her native Ohio. She says the movers arrived four days late, hauled away her stuff May 3 and promised delivery within two weeks. The next morning she left with her dog for Ohio.
Worried when nothing showed up, Henline kept calling her moving company and the moving broker she hired. A broker is a middleman who arranges moves but does none of the heavy lifting or transport. Henline, for weeks, was given no satisfaction and told to be patient. But at this point she's had it.
'Hostage loads’ increasing
She is not alone. When a person pays to have household goods moved and, in violation of a contract, the items don't arrive, federal regulators call it a “hostage load.” Such cases have spiked in recent years. This year, through July 25, there were 932 hostage load complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), surpassing the 899 complaints in all of 2020, says Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). That's up from 495 hostage load complaints in 2019; 409 in 2018; and 364 in 2017.
Henline called AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360), and spoke about her situation for this story. Three other consumers who said they have been ripped off, and a man who spoke on behalf of a fourth, also were interviewed for this story. All five used the same mover on moves originating in either Oregon or Washington state. Curiously, while moving brokers were hired first, all five consumers wound up with the same mover, whose firm is registered in Illinois. Federal records show the firm, with one truck in its fleet, had racked up 14 complaints this year through late June for a variety of allegations. Six were for so-called hostage loads.
Here's how hostage load cases typically unfold:
Looking for a good deal, consumers shop online and hire a broker who promises a great price. The broker sends a contract. Henline says she used a credit card to pay the broker $1,856 for his services alone, not for the actual transport. She and the other four people interviewed described being given a two-to-three-day window for pickup, but the mover (or movers) invariably arrived late. Henline says after her movers loaded up the truck, they complained that she had added more belongings than her estimate stipulated. Ultimately, she paid the movers $2,572 in cash; the same amount was due upon delivery, which hasn't happened. So, had delivery occurred, total cost of the move would have been $7,000.
After the delivery window passed, Henline, from Ohio, began calling the broker and the moving company manager — but never received her things. Later she complained to law enforcement in Washington and Illinois and alerted the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the FMCSA.