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Avoid Moving Day Rip-offs



An excerpt from Consumer Reports Money Adviser - March 2005

There are times in life when having faith in people's honesty can be rewarded. But hiring a mover is not one of them. Consider Tim Walker's experience. Four years ago, he was preparing to move cross-country to take a new job with an Internet service provider and did what any Internet-savvy consumer might think to do: He tried out one of the many Web sites that offer quotes from moving companies. After receiving three estimates, he chose the lowest bid. A week later, the movers showed up on time to start the job.

That was the last thing that went right. Once the truck was loaded, the movers told Walker his possessions exceeded the agreed-upon volume. The runover was billed at more than double the original rate, and the total charge rose to $5,012.50, nearly three times the original estimate. Walker says he had to pay nearly half up front. "I didn't see that I had a choice," Walker says. "If I didn't pay, they would have kept everything I own." Walker was a victim of "hostage freight," an increasingly common scam. The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, which licenses interstate movers, receives up to 3,500 complaints a year about this abuse.

Almost six weeks after the promised delivery date, the moving truck finally arrived. Walker was happy to see his possessions but the movers had upped the fee again, this time by $100. His relief was short-lived, however, because some of his more expensive possessions, including his computer, were missing.

After this ordeal, Walker created www.movingscam.com, which includes a blacklist of movers. Walker chalks up the incident to naivet. "I had almost no experience with moving," he says.

Not many people do. Only about one in seven Americans moves each year, and it's often such an emotional event that many people, distracted by the tumult of a move, become easy targets for fraud. Here are five steps for avoiding rude surprises on moving day.

1. FIND THE RIGHT MOVER

Ask for advice about moving and you're likely to hear, "Get three quotes before selecting a company." But from whom? For starters, ask neighbors, friends, real-estate agents, lawyers, and other people you trust for referrals. Also, search the Yellow Pages and the Web for local companies. But avoid using Internet sites that get estimates for you; handle that yourself so you know exactly what the bid is based on and approve of its guidelines.

After you put together a list of movers, do your homework. Even if a company has a well-known name like Allied Van Lines or Mayflower, don't skip this step. The major moving companies are actually made up of many local agents, so there's no guarantee of a trouble-free move, although you will get some protection because presumably those who offer horrible service won't be able to hang onto their affiliation for very long.

Start by calling each company to ask for references. Also, ask about the company's memberships in state and national associations, such as the American Moving and Storage Association, so you can check on the company's standing. AMSA has a code of ethics and certifies movers who meet its standards. (For AMSA's list of certified movers, go to www.moving.org/before/cmcstate.asp.) Also make sure the moving company is licensed by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration; that indicates the company is in good standing with its insurance carrier. Next, contact the Better Business Bureau to uncover any troubling complaints. (The FMCSA also maintains a database of complaints. Call 888-368-7238. You can log on to FMCSA's Web site at www.fmcsa.dot.gov for a list of state agencies you can contact that regulate movers.) If your mover checks out, call the references.

2. GET LEGITIMATE ESTIMATES

After identifying three moving companies that appear trustworthy and competent and come with good references, ask each for a "binding quote," which spells out costs. Make sure the companies send an agent in person to your home to draw up the bid. Without eyeballing your possessions, it's impossible for anybody to deliver an accurate proposal. The total price should be based on the distance of the move as well as the weight of your belongings. (Volume is used by few legitimate movers.) Don't forget to ask about extras like packing materials and special services (for example, to move a grand piano).

Once you have your three quotes, don't rush to pick the lowest one. Bids that come in too low are bright-red flags. In general, experts say, it's the less-than-trustworthy mover who is likeliest to lowball quotes to lure unsuspecting bargain hunters. So if one quote is out of line with the other two, determine why that company can do the same job for so little before accepting it--or simply stay away.

Use a credit card to pay, if possible. Many big-name movers (national companies like Allied and Mayflower) accept them, and if something goes wrong, you can challenge the payment through the credit provider. But if you plan to use a credit card, tell the moving company ahead of time. Movers may ask for half of the fee at pickup or the full fee at drop-off, and the driver may not be able to process a credit-card transaction on the truck. Keep some cash on hand, too. Tipping is customary. Tim Schneeman, general manager of Allied Van Lines, suggests giving a total of $20 to $100 to the crew when the job is done.

3. COVER YOUR ASSETS

Movers generally include coverage in their prices for broken or missing items at about 60 cents a pound per article. That's not enough. If an 80-pound flat-panel TV worth $7,000 crashes into the curb, the $48 you receive from insurance won't even be enough for a down payment on a new one. But you can buy full-value protection from most movers. Rates vary from mover to mover. Mayflower, for example, sells protection that reimburses at $5 a pound, with a $250 deductible. At that rate, if your belongings weigh in at 10,000 pounds, a typical weight, you get $50,000 of coverage for $317. Another option: Buy a policy directly from an insurer, such as Movinginsurance.com, which will need a list of all your possessions and their replacement value. Just don't count on your homeowner's policy. Most likely, you'll have to buy a special premium "all-risks" insurance policy to get coverage for items lost or broken in a move.

4. WATCH OUT FOR HIDDEN FEES

With a fixed-price or "not-to-exceed" contract (another option if you cannot for some reason get a fixed-price deal), a mover can legitimately tack on extra charges when the work turns out to be greater than originally specified. If the fee goes beyond what the contract calls for because of unexpected items at the pickup location, the movers should write a change order with the new charges before loading the truck. You can approve this change or cancel the move for that day. On nonbinding estimates for interstate moves, you cannot be required to pay more than 10 percent above the initial bid before unloading; that must be billed separately. "This prevents a freight-hostage situation," says the FMCSA's Lewis. "If there's a dispute, it can be ironed out through negotiation, arbitration, or through the courts. But while that is going on, the customers have their possessions."

5. CUT YOUR LOSSES

Once you become the victim of hostage freight, there's not much you can do. If the mover is at your new house demanding a fortune before he'll unload the truck, you'll likely have to pay up or forfeit your belongings. If you call the police, chances are you'll be told it's a civil matter. If you try to sue the mover, you'll have to live without your possessions during months of legal wrangling--that is, if you can find the mover to sue. Fortunately, most moving disputes center on relatively small things like delivery delays. If you can't resolve the problem with the mover, complain to the local Better Business Bureau. Also, mover organizations will investigate complaints against members. AMSA arranges arbitration for disputes about damages or losses.

This article was also published in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

Most accidents occur when you least expect them or when you're not covered for them.
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