The Housing Scene

When Moving, Beware of Fraudsters

Anyone who has ever moved from one residence to another probably has a tale to tell about an unscrupulous mover.

Here are a few stories gleaned from a federal fraud prevention video:

-- Susan Parr, who was moving from Washington to North Carolina, said, “The guy showed up and he said, ‘Do you have the cash?’ I said I’d be happy to write him a check, but he wouldn’t take a check.”

-- Ron Karlosky, going from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., had to pay $1,500 to get his household goods back, only to find many of them smashed.

-- Reana Kovalcik, relocating from Chicago to New York, said, “When your movers are five hours late, you’re concerned. When you can’t get ahold of your moving company, you’re concerned.” The end result for her was a bump in the price: from $900 to $2,000.

At the national level, a movers’ trade association has its antennae out for fraudsters, and wants to prevent consumers from being scammed. And a federal agency cracks down on any scallywag outfits it finds.

The American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA) has started a consumer protection and certification program called ProMover.

“The ProMover program promotes ethical principles in the moving and storage industry, and works with federal and state governments to mitigate unethical moving practices,” the AMSA says. “It clearly separates professional movers from rogue operators.”

At the same time, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) offers a wealth of knowledge for the 35 million of us who move every year.

FMCSA is a unit of the Department of Transportation, and its primary job is to reduce commercial vehicle crashes and fatalities. But it offers several resources to help stop moving fraud on its website (fmcsa.dot.gov) as part of its Protect Your Move campaign. For example, its look-up service allows people to research complaints against movers and obtain other relevant information, such as what kind of insurance the carrier has. Go to protectyourmove.gov, or call the FMCSA at 888-368-7238.

Here’s how rogue movers often operate, according to the FMCSA: “Without ever visiting your home or seeing the goods you want moved, they give a low estimate over the telephone or internet. Once your goods are on their truck, they demand more money before they will deliver or unload them. They hold your goods hostage and force you to pay more -- sometimes much more than you thought you had agreed to -- if you want your possessions back.”

Here are a few red flags that a moving outfit may not be reliable:

-- The mover doesn’t offer or agree to an onsite inspection of your household goods, instead giving you an estimate over the phone or online, sight-unseen. A reputable company will send out an agent who looks over your goods, going from room to room. They estimate the weight of the stuff you want to move, along with other important details, then provide a written estimate of the charges.

-- Bad guys demand cash or a large deposit before they’ll even show up. A good mover will want payment (in cash, or by certified or traveler’s check) when its crew arrives to pick up your stuff. Some movers also accept charge cards, but make sure you ask first.

-- Fraudsters sometimes ask you to sign blank or incomplete documents. Never sign anything that isn’t filled out completely, isn’t signed by the mover’s agent and doesn’t contain the mover’s address, phone number and licensing and insurance information.

-- Scoundrels won’t provide a written estimate, but will promise to determine the exact charges once the truck is loaded and weighed. Don’t bite. Once a bad guy has your goods on his truck, you are stuck. You’ll have to pay to get them back.

-- Beware if the company’s website has no local address and no information about their registration or insurance.

-- It’s a bad sign if a rental truck arrives, rather than a company-owned fleet truck. Remember, you can stop the move anytime something seems fishy, right up until the movers themselves actually enter your house. After that, if something has your antennae wiggling, call the police.

By law, all interstate movers are required to give you a copy of the FMCSA-prepared brochure called “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.” But you can download the pamphlet in advance from FMCSA’s website and get some good information.

Also available on the site are the agency’s “Ready to Move?” brochure, and a checklist with suggestions such as checking potential movers with the Better Business Bureau, asking whether they are registered with the FMCSA and learning whether they have an official DOT registration number.

Remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to giving someone the responsibility of handling your property.

-- Freelance writer Mark Fogarty contributed to this report.

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