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Protect yourself from moving scams

Low-ball estimates from rogue carriers can leave you fighting for your possessions

Consumer Reports Money Adviser: May 2013

You’ve hired a moving company to transport your possessions to your new home. But after the work begins, the company holds your belongings hostage until you pay thousands of dollars more.

Seems unlikely? Last year, Massachusetts officials sued one moving company and New Jersey officials sued two for providing low-ball estimates and then grossly inflating fees after loading the trucks. One of the companies had threatened to auction the possessions of customers who didn’t pay.

In 2012 the Better Business Bureau in the U.S. and Canada reported receiving more than 8,500 complaints about movers, making it the 16th-highest complaint category. Other problems reported to the BBB about movers include lost, stolen, or damaged possessions, and late deliveries.

Do the research

Hiring a moving company can be complicated, and even an honest mover can disappoint you unless you know your rights. And those can vary depending on whether you’re moving between states or within one. Here’s how to protect yourself:

Get recommendations. Try not to rely on newspaper, phone-book, or online ads for the names of movers. Instead, get recommendations from friends, family, or reliable real estate agents. Plan to obtain estimates from at least three companies.

Avoid movers that can’t provide an address or licensing information. Ask whether they have marked trucks, and use a mover that does. Never hire a company that relies solely on a phone or online estimate, or one that requires a large deposit.

Verify licensing. In August, New Jersey officials announced a sting operation that resulted in fines against 25 unlicensed moving companies with listings on Craigslist, Angie’s List, and other websites. Several movers had outstanding warrants; two were wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Interstate movers are licensed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which offers information on how to screen them at www.protectyourmove.gov. The site also has a list of state regulators who oversee in-state movers.

Check for complaints. The federal website and some state sites list complaints against movers. Also check the Better Business Bureau, and search with the company’s name to find reviews and complaints on online forums and complaint websites.

Know your rights. The federal government and some states require movers to provide booklets explaining your rights. Although “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move” doesn’t apply to in-state movers, this brochure is a must-read for all. Also check the consumer information on the American Moving & Storage Association’s website.

Making the move

Here are some other details you need to know when hiring a mover:

The cost

Generally, you can’t be charged more—or in some states less—than the mover’s regulated rates and charges, which you have a right to see. Moves are usually billed by the weight of your possessions (using a formula based on the volume) or by the amount of time the move takes. That’s why you’ll generally receive a nonbinding estimate of the total cost, with the final price to be determined after the move. A fixed-price “binding estimate” may be available. But expect it to cost more.

A mover is usually allowed to charge you a certain amount above the estimate—often 10 percent, but sometimes more—upon delivery and can bill you for the rest, usually due in 30 days. If you can’t make the payment on delivery, your possessions probably won’t be released.

Tip

When the mover comes to scope out the job, point out everything that needs to go so you get an accurate estimate.


Payment method

Some movers accept credit cards, money orders, or cashier’s checks, or they may offer credit themselves. Find out first, and avoid paying in cash.

Inventory

Make an accurate inventory of your possessions. It’s a good idea to photograph or video at least the valuable items to document their condition. Don’t pack jewelry and other small valuables, medication, and important papers.

Insurance

Movers usually provide minimal insurance but offer higher-level “replacement” coverage for an additional charge. Check your homeowner’s policy, which may cover lost or damaged items.

Tip

Never sign a document releasing a mover from liability for missing or damaged items.


Contract

Read the order for service and “bill of lading,” which is your actual contract, before signing.

Tip

The mover might need to leave certain document fields blank, such as the weight of your possessions. Don’t sign paperwork that’s largely left blank, and ask about anything that’s not filled in.


Complaints

If there’s a problem after the move—you notice items are damaged or missing—contact the mover immediately. The mover should have given you a copy of its procedures for handling complaints and inquiries. If you think you’ve been defrauded or that the mover violated the law, contact your state attorney general or consumer protection agency. To find them, go to usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer/index.shtml. For interstate movers, also file a complaint with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Last, complain to the BBB. If you think the mover is illegally holding your possessions and trying to rip you off, contact the police. If the mover is a member of the American Moving & Storage Association, call the group’s toll-free number at 888-849-2672. If ultimately you need to sue in small-claims court, send your mover a demand letter with your complaint and what you’re seeking.

Tip

To help others, post your complaint and the outcome on online forums, such as consumeraffairs.com


   

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