Moving is a highly charged, emotional transition that most of us don’t undertake often. We all know people who seem to move every other year to a new apartment or a new state or country on a whim. Still, for many of us, it takes a good reason to get us to change residences. Unfortunately, this means that when we do move, we aren’t as experienced in the process of evaluating and selecting a moving company as we are at choosing vendors for other services we use more often. This fact puts the consumer at a disadvantage and may leave us at the mercy of dishonest companies.
How common are problems with moving companies?
On average, one in ten Americans moves their home each year and over four million move to another state. The typical interstate move costs thousands of dollars. People move for new jobs, to live closer to their families, and for a variety of other reasons, and most relocations occur in the summer months. The Better Business Bureau is a nonprofit organization that publishes information about businesses in all kinds of industries, including companies that are members of the BBB and those which are not. BBB reports that it receives over 13,000 complaints and negative reviews about moving companies each year.
Similarly, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) received 5,900 complaints about moving fraud in 2018. More than half of the complaints sent to FMCSA involve overcharging, while 39% are about loss or property damage. Of great concern is the fact that the average loss claim filed with FMCSA is $16,200.
How do the moving scams work?
As with so many things these days, you may start your search for a service provider on the internet. As soon as you begin to look for moving companies, you will be contacted by companies soliciting your business. The offers will come from both movers and brokers, so it is crucial to understand the difference. Both kinds of operations must register with FMCSA and maintain a DOT license if they perform interstate moves. Companies that only work within one state are subject to regulation by that state. A moving company performs work related to a move, including packing, loading, and household goods transportation. A broker serves as a liaison between mover and consumers—it does not move anything.
Moving scams often start with a low estimate for the job, either from the mover or a broker. A low estimate seems like a good deal, so an unsuspecting consumer thinks all is well. If the moving company has not come to your home for an onsite survey of your household goods before providing the estimate, you should be suspicious. The visual inspection is required by FMCSA for any interstate transport and is a good idea even if you are planning a local move. The mover can’t make an accurate assessment of the job’s extent without seeing what needs to be moved. Your verbal or online list is insufficient for a correct estimate of the shipment’s weight.
Things can go wrong in several ways after this. If you are working with a shady moving broker, the broker may ask for a large deposit upfront. Typically, moving services are paid for when the goods are delivered, but the broker will explain that you got such a good deal that you have to reserve the moving company with a substantial cash deposit. You agree and pay the broker. If the broker does send a mover to your home, that mover may then be or claim to be unaware that a deposit was paid and expect you to pay the entire amount. One common ruse is for the mover to start loading the shipment and then announce that the estimate is too low and inform you of a significant price increase—after most of your goods have already been loaded.
Alternatively, the loading day will go smoothly, but then the mover simply disappears. Delivery day at the new residence comes and goes, and you cannot contact the mover or the broker. The phone number that you have for them is disconnected or is unanswered. Your mover and your household goods have gone missing. If they reappear, they may demand a massive payment in return for delivering your goods. Sometimes they are gone for good.
Finally, if a broker has submitted an attractive quote and cannot find a mover to accept the job at that price, the broker may hire temporary day laborers with a rented truck and send them to your home to act as a “moving crew.” You can usually figure this out if the crew is late, seems unfamiliar with moving, and is driving an unbranded rental vehicle. While you may be desperate enough to accept their services, you may want to reconsider since this team could end up injured or damaging your possessions.
Not all scams are perpetrated by brokers. Moving companies may also be responsible for trying to pull a fast one on an unsuspecting consumer. Whether you are dealing directly with the moving provider or a broker, you need to protect yourself by being cautious.
How can I protect myself from being a victim?
First, get several estimates, and don’t settle for a quote based on a phone conversation or an online form. If one estimate is much lower than the others, there is probably a reason, and it could be a scam, so dig deeper before you accept it.
Only engage companies that are registered with FMCSA (or licensed by the appropriate state agency) and always check the BBB as well for any negative ratings. FMCSA has data on their safety rating and consumer complaints on its website. Ask for references before you make a final decision. Don’t rely on glowing testimonials on the company site—those could be manufactured or paid for.
Never sign any blank or incomplete documents. You don’t know what the mover is going to write above your signature. Strikethrough any blanks, and never sign anything you haven’t read or don’t understand. This rule applies equally to moving insurance, also known as valuation or liability. It’s complicated when moving, and if you aren’t careful, you could end up without protection for something that is broken or lost.
Be suspicious if the mover you are considering does not have a local address but claims to be a local company. Similarly, if the local address is a P.O. Box or a residence, that is a red flag. They might be a fly-by-night operation, drumming up business, and taking off before the move date arrives.
Moving companies must have dispute settlement programs and provide you with information about how their program works. They must also give you a copy of the FMCSA brochure about moving called Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move. If the interstate mover you are considering does not willingly supply this information, move on to the next service provider. There are plenty of honest and reliable movers to choose from, so there is no reason to compromise by working with one that is hesitant to follow the rules.
Returning for a moment to the topic of estimates: Obtaining several in-person estimates has value in another way. In addition to getting more than one comprehensive, reliable assessment of the work price, the process allows you to meet with the people who may be moving your household goods. It’s a great chance to form an impression of them, assess their professionalism, and decide if they are the right company to trust with this vital project.