Dec. 26, 2012 -- There have always been unscrupulous companies in the moving business. After all, when you entrust all your life's possessions to them, they have an awful lot of power over you. The Internet has only made it worse because online moving brokers often pose as movers, give ridiculously low quotes and then sell their leads to actual movers, who load up your goods and then jack up the price.
The problem is so severe that many reputable, long-time national movers have stepped in to offer help because they hate to watch their industry tarnished. Mayflower Transit, for instance, founded a pro-bono organization called MoveRescue.com that is staffed by attorneys who advise customers of their legal rights.
If a fly-by-night mover has held people's goods hostage, Move Rescue will arrange for Mayflower trucks to rescue the items, for free. It's great to know that members of the reputable, established part of the industry want to help, but it's even better to help yourself, in advance, before the worst happens. Here's how:
Say No to Phone Estimates
Most moving brokers give their estimates by phone. They ask you to walk through your house and describe what is in each room. There are a couple problems with that. First, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, which regulates interstate movers and brokers, says phone estimates, particularly estimates that seem too good to be true, are red flags that you might be dealing with a rogue mover who will pick your goods up and then hold them hostage until you've agreed to pay a substantially higher fee.
Second, you are not a professional moving estimator. When your move is more expensive than quoted, the broker can them blame you and say you weren't honest about how much furniture you had. Even if you're thorough, it's hard for a non-expert to know how many boxes it takes to hold all the books in your living room. And it's easy to forget about things like the BBQ grill out on your patio.
Third, the broker is not the one who has to actually transport your goods for the price quoted. So he does not have that personal motivation to make sure his price will cover it. If the quote is too low, loopholes in the law make it fairly easy for the mover to throw out the broker's quote and raise the price. Countless consumers have complained that they received lowball quotes from moving brokers and then the actual mover jacked up the price.
Refuse to Pay Upfront Fees
Most moving brokers charge a "deposit" in advance. But it's not really a deposit on the balance of the move, because it doesn't go to the mover. It's the broker's fee, and it can be several thousand dollars. It can also be a problem. Once again, the FMCSA lists upfront fees as a "red flag" because too many businesses have been known to charge a fee in advance, then not provide the promised service. Reputable moving companies don't charge large deposits in advance and usually accept full payment upon delivery of your goods.
Some customers complain about moving brokers who call them back shortly before their move and say they need additional "deposit" money because the move is going to be more work than they first thought. This is questionable because the broker is not the one who does the work, but he is probably the one who pockets the deposit. It might just be one more way for a salesperson to make extra money off your move. Is it worth it to you to spend thousands of dollars on somebody whose primary service to you is writing a furniture list over the phone and then picking a mover for you?
Avoid Unknown Movers
When you arrange your move through a broker, you might not know who the actual mover is going to be until the last minute. Or you might be told one mover will be handling your move, then another shows up on moving day. If you're going to entrust a company with all your worldly possessions, don't you want to check its reputation first?
The FMCSA says it's crucial. After all, the mover could be unlicensed or uninsured. The company could be one of these fly-by-night outfits that steal your stuff or loads it up and then demands more money before unloading your belongings.
Steps for a Smooth Move
Check your mover's reputation. For any movers you're considering, plug their names into a search engine. Put it in quotes along with the word "complaint" or "scam." See what your search reveals. If you get back lots of negative information and you see clear trends among the complaints, watch out.
Ask the government. You can also check government complaint records here.
In-home estimate. Only do business with reputable companies that will come to your house and give you an in-person estimate. That's the only accurate way, and the best part is, most moving companies do this for free.
Binding estimate. Insist on a binding "guaranteed not-to-exceed" estimate. Use that lingo. That means, if your goods weigh less than the estimator thought, you will pay less. If they weigh more, you will still pay what the estimator quoted you.
Additional Advice from MoveRescue.com
1. Go with a name you know. Find companies that have been in business for at least 10 years.
2. Get a referral. Ask friends, family, neighbors and colleagues for recommendations.
3. Ask for an in-home estimate. Because transportation charges are based on move distance and weight, the company should physically look at your belongings.
4. Don't be hooked by the lowest price. Get three estimates. If one is much lower than the others, that is a red flag.
5. Don't pay a deposit upfront. Most companies only request payment at the time of delivery.
6. Do your research and verify company affiliations. Find a list of movers licensed for interstate moves by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Some disreputable movers lure customers by using names similar to reputable companies. Check the reputable company's website to see if the mover is affiliated.
7. Get it in writing. Get pickup and delivery dates in writing.
8. Know your rights. Federal law requires movers to give customers a copy of the "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move" brochure before an interstate move.
Source: MoveRescue, a pro-bono organization endorsed and sponsored by Mayflower Transit.