Sure, any mover will tell you he'll treat your grandmother's antique armoire as if it were his own — until he drops it down the stairs. Here's a heads-up on what to look out for.
1. "We'll hijack your stuff."
Summer's here. Let the relaxing begin — unless, that is, you're moving. In that case, heads up. The moving industry packs in nearly 60% of its business during the summer months, but often leaves a trail of frustrated consumers in its wake. The Department of Transportation receives up to 4,000 household moving complaints annually, mostly about loss and damage, poor service or overcharging. The Council of Better Business Bureaus, meanwhile, reports that complaints about movers have jumped from nearly 3,800 in 1997 to more than 9,000 in 2002. And these days, with millions of Americans changing addresses annually, there's no shortage of moving targets.
Just ask Spyro Malaspinas, a recent victim of a botched move. He alleges that Nation Van Lines, which he hired to move his belongings from Austin, Tex., to Chicago this past January, hiked his bill from an estimate of $1,050 to nearly $4,300. The movers, according to Malaspinas, said his goods measured 500 cubic feet more than anticipated. When Malaspinas threatened to call the police, the drivers made off with his possessions (which he estimates are worth $47,000). Despite an FBI investigation and the March arrest of Nation owner Eli Peretz by the FBI for alleged crimes with another moving company, Malaspinas still has no clue where his things are.
"It's paralyzing," he says. "It's not like somebody stealing your wallet; they have stolen everything you've got." Nation Van Lines could not be reached for comment, and Peretz's lawyer did not return calls.
2. "We're popular...with the FBI."
Eli Peretz wasn't the only mover rounded up by the FBI in March. The feds indicted a total of 16 moving companies and 74 operators, owners and employees on various charges following a two-year investigation called Operation Stow Biz. "It is the most significant crackdown that we've done," says Judy Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami division, whose undercover agents posed as potential customers to trap movers committing fraud, money laundering and other acts.
Among those indicted were 20 officers and employees of Sunrise, Fla.-based Advanced Moving Systems. The charges in the 60-count indictment include fraud, extortion, false documentation and "inflating the price of the move and, thereafter, withholding delivery of...goods until (customers) paid the inflated price." Too bad Patrick and Tammy Runion didn't get advance word of Advanced's alleged practices. The couple booked the company for their move from Toledo, Ohio, to Lake Forest, Calif., last December. Patrick alleges that Advanced movers locked their stuff in storage in Chicago when he refused to pay an additional $500 because the load's weight had been miscalculated by a driver. "We were so stressed and frustrated" by the ordeal, says Patrick, who eventually paid $1,000 to find the storage space. Attempts to contact Advanced officials were unsuccessful, and according to the FBI, 10 of the indicted employees are listed as fugitives. The other 10 have pleaded not guilty to charges.
3. "We're like the Mafia — untouchable."
While the FBI sting put some bad guys out of play, Robert Julian, Florida's assistant attorney general, doesn't think "consumers should breathe easy." Scammers are difficult to stop. Unfortunately, local police hesitate to get involved in moving disputes because they're considered civil matters. Meanwhile, the FBI will investigate complaints involving interstate moves, but getting property back is not its priority.
The laxity of current law is why Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee, has taken up the issue of abusive movers. In March, Petri introduced a bill to allow individuals or states to take legal action against rogue interstate movers under their state consumer protection laws. Right now it's difficult to go after moving companies because of the Carmack Amendment, a law that prevents consumers from suing for punitive damages, receiving attorney's fees or getting amounts beyond the value of the goods in question. Petri's bill, he says, "would mean that people have a realistic chance of getting some recourse."
4. "Someone will deliver your stuff. It just won't be us."
Last June, Carole and Doug Stowers contracted with Elite Van Lines to transport the contents of their three-bedroom house from Palm City, Fla., to Bailey, Colo. Nothing unusual there, right? Guess again. Elite subcontracted the job to other companies for the cross-country trip. The Stowers were shocked when Majesty Moving & Storage pulled up to their new home with only half their possessions and didn't know what had happened to the rest — after all, they hadn't loaded the goods.
Beware: In the hectic summer months, a mover might get so busy that it asks another company to help out with a job. That's fine. But the consumer should be notified in advance of the deal. David Sparkman, spokesman for the American Moving and Storage Association, says, "For a completely different company to show up at your house, with no prior arrangements, that is totally unacceptable." No need to tell Carole Stowers that. She shelled out $5,375 to Elite — the original estimate was $1,700 — in order to get all her possessions back. "We almost went bankrupt trying to save our furniture," she says. Majesty has since closed, and officials at Elite could not be reached for comment.
5. "How much experience do our movers have? A day or two."
Even if one company does handle your entire move, don't assume that the movers who show up are actual employees of that company. Companies have been known to hire day-laborers plucked off the streets on moving day. Peter Drymalski, investigator for the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs in Maryland, says for smaller movers, "that's probably the rule rather than the exception because they often don't have regular crews." The worry? Inexperienced workers are more likely to damage possessions.
Similarly, many moving companies contract with independent truck drivers — a concern if the mover arrives in an unmarked rental truck. That's a red flag, warns Sparkman, of a fly-by-night operator with limited fixed assets that would be difficult to go after in court. In addition, swing by the company's offices before you choose a mover. If the company does not appear to have its own trucks, do yourself a favor: Cancel the job.
6. "Our pricing policies are insane."
Moving can test even the most time-conscious planner. For instance, it may be tempting to bypass getting an in-house and written estimate from a mover and instead save a few minutes with a telephone or online estimate. But take the shortcut and be prepared to get burned. Tim Walker thought he had caught a break when he booked a mover online with a lowball quote of $1,869 for a Virginia-to-Nevada move in October 2001. But once his goods were on the truck and measured in cubic feet, the price was jacked up to $5,012. He could pay only the original amount, so the movers took his stuff until he ponied up the cash six weeks later.
With an in-house estimate, a mover should give you a more precise idea of the cost. But you also need to consider how the mover is reaching that estimate — is it by total weight or by cubic feet? Go the weight-based route, if possible. That will at least entitle you to witness all weighings. Also, it's pretty easy to check your bill to see if you've been overcharged. Simply divide the total weight by the number of items. If the average amount per item is more than 35 to 45 pounds, there's cause for suspicion. The trouble with cubic-foot pricing is that actual charges could depend on how the mover packed your items.
7. "We have ways of charging you more."
Moving from Atlanta to Chicago is no small feat, but everything seemed to be going smoothly for Angie Chen — that is, until the movers claimed they couldn't park in front of her apartment building, forcing them to park a half block away. The movers then ended up performing "long carries" in order to deliver Chen's goods into her home. For this and other "accessorial services," Chen says, Century Moving & Storage, an agent of Mayflower Transit, demanded $2,500, more than $800 above its "guaranteed" estimate.
Understand this: There are many ways for movers to squeeze extra dollars from customers. Besides charges for accessorial services, movers have been known to charge exorbitant fees for such things as packing supplies. Sound petty? Sure, but they can drive customers batty. In Chen's case, the movers put her goods in storage until she could produce cash. They returned the items only after Chen threatened them with a court order. Still, she has filed suit against Mayflower Transit in U.S. District Court in northern Illinois for emotional distress as well as damages under federal racketeering laws. Mayflower's senior staff attorney, Joe Garr, contends that Chen had been forewarned about potential added services and "had an opportunity to produce the cash or certified funds, and she didn't. We are countersuing for the shipping bill."
8. "We never met a schedule we didn't ignore."
Thinking of moving during the last 10 days of June, July or August? Think again. Those are the busiest moving days of the year. Still, moving companies will often overbook just to keep you from taking your business elsewhere. What can happen? Consider Jenna Callahan. She was scheduled to move from Boston to West Chester, Pa., one day last July. The movers never showed up at all. "I lost a lot of time and sanity," she says.
Then there's Tyrone Kelley. In January 2002 he was set to move from Stoughton, Mass., to Las Vegas, but the movers didn't arrive until 6 p.m., seven hours late. Says Kelley, "It's a common tactic to arrive after business hours so that it's too late for you to find another moving company." He wishes he had because U.S. Movers charged him more than double the estimate due to allegedly wrong weight calculations. They also locked his stuff in storage when he didn't have cash to pay for the job. It took three months to persuade the local police to serve a search warrant on the storage facility so he could reclaim his stuff. U.S. Movers' executive vice president, Tom Timen, denies the weight was false and says Kelley had more than twice the number of items listed on the estimate. "All we asked was to be paid for the services he agreed to."
9. "Surprise! Our insurance isn't worth much."
Remember Carole Stowers? When she finally got her goods back from Elite Van Lines, much of her furniture was battered and broken. The insurance adjuster from Crawford & Co. estimated $13,642 worth of damage. But little good that did. She was entitled to just over $2,000 recompense. The reason? A mover's liability coverage, known as "valuation," doesn't work like a typical insurance policy. For interstate moves, standard valuation limits the carrier's liability to no more than 60 cents per pound, and it's often less for in-state moves. So if your 50-pound plasma screen TV gets smashed, you'll collect just $30.
The AMSA estimates that one in five moves involves a claim for damage. That said, you're better off getting some real protection — say, through a rider on your homeowner's insurance. At the end of the move, look over your possessions carefully before signing a receipt. If you sign and later discover a huge dent in your Chippendale dresser, the mover will point to the receipt as proof that the dresser was fine when he dropped it off.
10. "We change addresses as often as our customers do."
James Balderrama called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in June 2001 to register a complaint about his goods being seized by a mover. Good idea. Too bad he didn't get a return call until 10 months later. The agency, a Department of Transportation division that oversees safety, licensing and regulation of trucks and buses, has only five full-time investigators to police more than 3,700 companies.
With so little manpower, the FMCSA lacks the muscle to rein in rogue movers. The agency fined 12 carriers last year at an average amount of $41,500 — chump change in an industry where the top 92 carriers reap combined revenue of $41 billion annually. And companies that get censured often remain defiant. "Typically, they will not pay the fine; instead, they close down and reopen under a different name," says FMCSA spokesman David Longo. Until regulators toughen up, take Longo's advice: "Educate yourself before you hire a mover. Once you hire one, most of the time it's too late for us to do anything to help."