Because many Americans don’t change their residences frequently enough to hire moving companies, many remain unaware of one of the most common consumer scams: moving fraud.
Of the 36 million people who move each year in the U.S., a significant one in 10 report scams related to moving companies to the government, according to a recent report by CBS News.
In some cases, the victims have a hard time prosecuting the offenders. That’s especially true of those moving across state lines, advised Brian Joseph in a 2016 Newsweek report. Though states legislate local moves, he writes, since 2000 the federal government has managed interstate moves with a department that’s woefully underfunded when it comes to regulation and enforcement. This year, for example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) set aside only $1.73 million of its $794.2 million budget to oversee moving activity across the entire U.S. Following suit, Congress has done little to address moving scams other than to hold an occasional hearing.
Fraudsters apparently know that, which explains why such scams have jumped 25 percent since 2014, according to AARP. Some of the most common moving scams:
- Ransomed wares: The mover takes your belongings, then refuses to deliver them unless you pay additional fees exceeding the estimate. He may claim the cubic feet of your shipment exceeded the weight, that packing wasn’t included in the price, that you didn’t prepare your goods for packing, or any number of other bogus excuses. Stressed-out customers pay the extra fees just to reclaim their goods and proceed with the moving process.
- Bait and switch: The mover lowballs the initial price to attract your interest, then jacks it up as you move further into the moving process.
- Deliberate delays: The mover holds your goods hostage, spouting unsupported excuses for the time lapse. Disgusted customers pay a premium to speed up the process.
- Thievery: A sham company takes your stuff and your down payment and simply disappears.
Fortunately, taking time to conduct a little research before you hire a mover can often circumvent any issues. Consider these tips before you entrust any business with your belongings .
- When possible, get three estimates to get a clear idea of going rates.
- Ask friends and family for recommendations of legitimate movers. Your real estate agent can also be an excellent source, as can a trade group such as the American Moving and Storage Association or one representing your state.
- Ensure potential movers are licensed, insured, bonded and registered with the Department of Transportation.
- Vet the companies online as thoroughly as possible. Look for local addresses and other company names listed as DBA (doing business as), since unethical companies often dodge bad reputations by assuming other monikers. Check for customer comments on online review sites such as Angie’s List, Better Business Bureau and Yelp. Google the name(s) in search of complaints or legal actions.
- Call the company anonymously. If the representative doesn’t answer with the full name of the business, he could be hiding a past moniker.
- Ask for three references from customers who’ve hired the mover within the last three months. Contact them with open-ended questions, allowing them to discuss the company’s pros and cons.
- Check out the firm’s history via the government’s consumer complaints hotline: 1-888-368-7238.
- By federal law, legitimate companies are supposed to provide you a booklet called “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move” as you plan your move, not after your goods are in their trucks.
- Be wary of price estimates given online or by phone without a visual inspection of your belongings. Legitimate shippers will need to eyeball bulk and weight themselves and ask multiple questions before providing a quote, since consumers often underestimate such factors. Once packed, their trucks will be weighed to compare estimates with actual numbers.
- Federal law dictates movers must offer one of two contract types. Non-binding varieties limit final charges to no more than 10 percent of the original estimate, allowing the mover to increase costs if his weight estimate was inaccurate. Binding varieties are meant to establish a guaranteed price for all services listed, but even they can include stipulations stating prices are only final if the actual weight meets estimates.
- Though some shippers require a minimal down payment, the bulk of your balance should be payable within 30 days of safe delivery. Never honor a request for a cash deposit; make all payments by credit card so your cardholder can intervene in case of fraud.
- Circumvent surprises by notifying your shipper of potential obstacles during the transfer process, such as stairs or elevators he’ll need to navigate, alleyways, narrow streets that may not accommodate his trucks, etc.
- Note that if you plan to pack and unpack your truck yourself, the mover is not responsible for related damage.
- When agreeing to moving insurance, understand the difference between full or replacement value protection (more coverage for more money) and alternate levels of liability. Your mover may also offer you separate liability insurance.
- Never sign a blank contract under the guise the mover will fill in the details later.
- Before singing your contract, ensure your most valuable items are clearly itemized, not just categorized into vague categories. Otherwise, you’ll have no specific proof if the mover claims he never took possession.
- Legitimate companies use branded trucks, not generic vehicles.
- Once your goods arrive, it’s a good idea to open each box, briefly inspect your belongings for obvious damage and note them on the mover’s bill of lading before signing it. The mover then has 30 days to acknowledge receipt of your claim, and 120 days to deny or arrange to pay it. Ultimately, you’ll have nine months to report related issues and file a claim with your insurer.
The more awareness is generated about how moving scammers operate, the more consumers can avoid victimization. Find more information about such fraud at www.fmcsa.dot.gov.