10 ways to avoid moving scams
Horror stories about sketchy moving companies abound. Don't let one take you for a ride. Here's expert advice to help.
You've heard the stories. Movers load up your stuff one day and hold it hostage the next, demanding more money and threatening to dump your precious treasures if you don't pay.
You believe you've agreed upon a price, only to find out it's going to cost you a lot more than that.
"These salespeople are commission-based and will do whatever it takes to get a deposit on file and lock the customer into a signed estimate," says Tom O'Gorman, sales director for Gentle Giant Moving Co. "Then, when push comes to shove, there's a lot of gray area around this estimate.
"They will say, 'The estimate was based on moving only these things. You weren't packed, so it took us four extra hours to pack.'"
O'Gorman says some of these outfits give the impression that "you are dealing with a moving company, but you're really dealing with an online broker who passes the job off to some local moving company in some region for a commission. So you're not even dealing with the end user. You have no control over who ends up in your home."
MoveRescue, an organization created by moving companies, says it receives 4,000 moving complaints a year. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association says more than $1.2 million in federal moving fines were issued in 2007. However, the FMCSA's information and investigations are only as good as the consumer complaints it receives.
"The consumers have to be diligent in reporting carriers," says Shashunga Clayton, a spokeswoman for the FMCSA, "because a lot of them continue with the same poor practices."
While the FMCSA oversees moves from state to state and maintains a federal complaint database, it handles only moves between states. Moves within states are regulated by the states, and local moves produce even more horror stories.
O'Gorman says disreputable local movers take stuff and run or "they deliver whenever they choose to. The problem is, many overbook their schedule and pick the more profitable jobs, leaving the other customers high and dry."
Here are 10 tips to help keep you from being scammed.
1. Ask your real-estate agent
The general consensus among moving professionals is that word of mouth is the best way to find a good mover. While friends and family are always good sources, O'Gorman believes real-estate agents know the ins and outs of the housing industry and are the most reliable sources.
"Referrals are the key to good selection for a moving company, and using some reputable referral sources, such as the real-estate agents with whom you're buying or selling your home," he says. "Realtors want to make sure that your (moving) transaction is a good one."
2. Investigate the companies
Check with your area's Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed and whether there are reliable Web sites solely dedicated to moving scams.
MovingScam.com maintains a "black list" with 376 movers currently on it. The site also endorses quality movers, such as All Star Moving in New York and STS Movers in California. MovingScam.com maintains a message board filled with consumer experiences, bad and good.
Through FMCSA's ProtectYourMove.gov, a consumer can learn if a mover's license is current and if the company has ever had a federal complaint. Some states have consumer mover-advocate associations.
3. Make sure the moving company visits your home
"They should always have a representative come to their apartment or their house and physically look at the logistics and what has to be moved," says Jim Molloy, CEO of Molloy Bros. Moving and Storage.
Good companies will spend 20 minutes or more with a potential client answering questions and giving packing tips, Molloy says, and should offer to show their warehouses for temporary storage.
"Many of these Internet companies don't even have a facility," Molloy says.
Make sure the weight of the load looks right. O'Gorman says a low-balling company will claim a 10,000-pound load is only 7,000 pounds so it can provide the low bid.
"They're not giving them a true, thorough description of everything that's being moved or planned to be moved," he says.
4. Get 3 estimates
When shopping for movers, it's best to get at least three estimates, says Jennifer Bonham, spokeswoman for MoveRescue.
"If you've got one that's really, really low compared to the other two, you're going to know something's up," she says.
5. Demand a contract that covers everything
A moving contract should spell out all the details, and there should not be any hidden charges, such as a "driver's fee."
"When you're really giving the customer information or protection, there's a lot more paperwork," Molloy says. "The scam guys make it very easy and simple: 'You're moving from point A to point B; here's your price.'
"But once they start doing the services, the contract didn't include this and that. And all of a sudden they're charging for pads, packing and all kinds of things they never mentioned."
Some movers demand a 20% gratuity on top of the bill — even before they unload the truck — with no mention of it in the contract.
"Tipping is customary, but down to the level of the customer's own discretion," O'Gorman says.
If there's no contract on the move, there's no record of sale.
"Companies that are just charging you cash, there's no transaction recorded," O'Gorman says. "They could run off with your stuff and pretend nothing happened."
6. Ask about the claims process
Even reputable movers occasionally drop vases and scratch tables. The difference between a good mover and a bad mover when this happens is that a good mover has a solid claims process to make sure you recoup damages.
You should learn about the claims process before signing the contract. Does the company have its own claims agent? Does it outsource claims to a third party? Do you have to go directly to the insurance company that you're buying your valuation through?
"If it's a reputable company, it would have an internal quality-control department and a contact to help you with your claim," O'Gorman says.
7. Do the movers conduct drug tests and background checks?
You're allowing these people into your home and they will be responsible for the safety of your possessions. Not to mention, they will have access to your loved ones. Learning if a potential mover has conducted thorough background checks and drug testing is absolutely necessary, says Zuni Corkerton, president for RefCheck Information Services Inc.
But Corkerton says many consumers accept a company's word at face value. She recommends requesting verification that the moving company has conducted a background check.
"Oftentimes, they will openly check misdemeanors in the past seven years, but not for felonies," Corkerton says. "With today's technology, you can get a pretty good insight into a person's background."
8. Be cautious of Internet movers
If you were to Google "movers" or "cheap move," your screen would be filled with special moving deals from companies that have legitimate-sounding company names. But Clayton says that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
"Unfortunately, the Internet is making it easy for scam artists to prey on consumers," Clayton says.
Veteran moving consumers are not the ones who are falling victim, Bonham says.
"It's people who haven't moved as much in their life and they don't know what to look for," she says. "We as a society are so used to just going on the Internet and finding something. You don't think about the fact that this truck's going to have all of your worldly possessions in it. You need to make sure you can trust somebody who's driving off with this."
9. Look at the actual trucks used
When you're shopping, take a look at the trucks. Do they look clean and well-kept? The condition of the truck is a good indication of how your furniture will be treated.
When it's moving time and your hired mover shows up with a rental truck, it behooves you to cancel the agreement right there and demand your deposit back.
10. Pay little upfront
Some companies require a down payment or deposit as high as 25% of the total move. But reputable companies do not require you to pay everything upfront. Nevertheless, with any deposit, consumers should make sure it is refundable, because the closing could always fall through.
"I'd be very wary of a local move situation that expects a (hefty) payment upfront," O'Gorman says.
By Fred Minnick, Bankrate.com