Finding the new home you’re going to live in is fabulous. Moving there? Not so much. Yet Americans move a lot. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average American moves 11.7 times in a lifetime. Hard to figure what .7 of a move would feel like, but we know any move — no matter how big, no matter how far — can be stressful.
Basically, summer is America’s peak moving season. Each year, about 15 million American households move, and the majority do so those months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In other words, right now, we’re on the move.
Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, this is also the peak season for moving company scams. When we seek out the cheapest service without doing our research, we may open the doors (literally!) to unethical and even criminal enterprises. Suddenly, the company we chose for reasonable prices becomes very unreasonable indeed, tacking on extra charges and holding our stuff hostage until we pay an exorbitant ransom.
Nightmare moves are all too real
These situations are way too common – and stressful in the extreme. Witness the case of Charles and Stacey Collier and their 2007 move from hell. The moving company they chose to transport their household goods from Virginia to Maine loaded their shipment and then claimed the move would cost an additional $3,445.00, which later increased to $5,321.00. The customers disputed the increase: the company responded by placing the shipment in an undisclosed storage facility at $500.00 a month.
Similarly scammed was Anita Marshall. Her moving company estimated her move from Texas to Illinois would cost $4,124. After loading, the company demanded either $12,000 to complete delivery. Then we have Judith Shumacher, who arranged and pre-paid for interstate transportation of household goods from Oregon to Florida. Rather than complete delivery, the moving company abandoned her shipment in a California storage facility.
The scariest part of these stories is that in each case, the companies chosen posed as reputable movers. “Anyone with a website can claim to be a mover,” points out Carl Walter, Vice President of Mayflower Transit (and one of America’s oldest moving companies). “It’s important to do some homework… There are a number of red flags that make rogue movers stand out, but to recognize them you have to know what to look for ahead of time.”
What can we do to protect ourselves (and our stuff)?
1. Find three moving companies that have offices in your area and have been in business for at least 10 years. A long record is a good record. Then you can compare their estimates.
2. Word of mouth is the strong indicator of reliability: Ask friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Online rating systems like Angie’s List or Yelp may be helpful as well.
3. Ask for an in-home estimate: Transportation charges are based not only on the distance of the move, but also on the weight of the items being moved. To ensure that your estimate is accurate, have the moving company come and look at the items you need to move.
4. Don’t be hooked by the lowest price: Disreputable movers often lure customers with lowball prices and then hit them with unreasonable charges or in extreme cases hold their belongings for ransom. Of those three estimates you got, if one is much lower than the others, there’s a red flag.
5. Make sure the company is who it says: Someone might call themselves Berkins instead of Bekins, Altsin istead of Atlas. A local mover may also claim to be an affiliate of a reputable company, so you should check that reputable company’s website to make sure the local agent is affiliated with the brand name it is claiming.
6. Don’t pay up front: Typically you should not be required to pay a deposit to have your items moved. Most companies request payment at the time of delivery.
7. Do your research: If you are moving interstate, go to protectyourmove.gov to find out if a mover is licensed for interstate moves by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association. Additionally, check out this resource for tracking customer complaints/scam history: http://movingscam.com
8. Get it in writing: Ask for pickup and delivery dates in writing.
9. Know your rights: Request a copy of “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move,” a brochure created by the Federal Highway Administration that outlines consumers’ rights, available here. There are different regulations that apply to intra-state moves and inter-state moves, which are nominally overseen by US DOT. DOT requires that interstate moves be based on weight, not volume. A common trick is to estimate your goods based on volume and then claim that they take up more space than estimated and therefore jack up the price. However, US DOT requires movers to weigh the truck before it shows up at your place and then again after your shipment is loaded, as trucks often contain multiple shipments from multiple persons. So don’t hire a company if they tell you that they won’t provide the required weight info.
10. Photograph and/or video things as you pack. It’s the ultimate evidence as to the condition of your items prior to movers taking possession of them.
11. Count how many individual boxes there are total and what’s loose in the container (like mattresses and tables). Make sure it’s noted on the bill of lading.
12. Pack everything like it’s going to go off road. You aren’t driving yourself, and no one cares as much as you do about your stuff.
13. Inspect everything closely when receiving it. Take photos and video as you unpack to document what’s good and what’s damaged. This is your proof for any claims you might make.
14. Consider paying for extra insurance if you have priceless and/or delicate item.
15. Read the bill of lading with the scrutiny that reflects a binding contract with finite details involving money and your life’s possessions.