Hiring a mover? A little homework can avert disaster

August 23, 2011

Moving across the country — or even across town — isn’t something most people do very often, so it’s no wonder many consumers aren’t conditioned to follow all the steps needed for a good experience.

Instead, they put their trust is some guys who show up in a truck and drive away with all of their worldly possessions. And it doesn’t always turn out so well.

For most of the past two decades, rogue movers have figured out how to take advantage of that lack of consumer awareness.

“It continues to be a significant problem,” says Carl Walter, vice president of Mayflower, one of the nation’s best-known moving companies.

Mayflower just released a survey the company commissioned that shows some specific mistakes consumers make when it comes to hiring movers. They found, first of all, that while 75 percent of their 1000-person nationwide sample believe getting more than one estimate before hiring a mover is important, fewer than half say they actually did that. They also found that nearly one-third of those who moved did not have an in-home estimate before the move and that only 8 percent thought getting an estimate over the phone was “the biggest indicator that a moving company is disreputable.”

The result of this is that a large collection of rogue movers and shady online brokers prey on consumers’ lack of familiarity with the industry and lack of follow-through, so stories of rip-offs abound.

Lara Buck found out the hard way. “I was not aware of how big a problem rogue movers are, and had quite a rude awakening,” she says after a nightmare move this summer from New York City to St. Louis.

After not hearing back from the movers for two weeks after her belongings were picked up, Buck was told the actual charges were now double the estimate. Her household goods were then held hostage until MoveRescue, a pro-bono operation run by UniGroup (parent of Mayflower and United Van Lines) stepped in and got about $1,000 dropped from the bill and she received the keys to the storage locker they were being held in — in Illinois.

It can be a horrifically frustrating experience for a consumer because law enforcement tends to dismiss these situations as something that doesn’t warrant their attention, says Thomas Stoll, who has been helping consumers deal with rogue movers on MovingScam.com. The federal government historically has had only a handful of investigators who spend their time policing an industry that moves an estimated 15 million households a year.

Mayflower’s Walter says that consumers can protect themselves by looking out for a number of warning signs. Foremost, for interstate moves, it simply isn’t possible to give a reasonable estimate without physically seeing what’s being moved. Those moves are based on a calculation involving weight and distance. For local moves, where prices are hourly, it isn’t ideal, but a phone estimate isn’t as big of a red flag.

The same goes for Web-based forms, which basically amount to a customer filling out their own estimate, something they are not qualified to do. “They are expecting for the consumer to figure out what a professional at time has issues doing,” Stoll says. “Would you fill out an estimate for repairs for your mechanic to fix?”

He said filling out those forms allows the movers to avoid complying with the law because the paperwork includes all of the protections consumers are afforded including a limit on how much more can be charged over the estimate.

Also, if a long-distance mover asks for a deposit and tells you that’s just a routine matter of course, run the other way.

“In our business that is just not the case,” Walter says. “We expect to get paid before the truck is unloaded.  If someone asks for money upfront, that’s a red flag. That is not what we do as professional movers.”

Thanks to the skills of good Web designers, even a scam site can look professional and parrot a legitimate mover’s operation. And beware of online moving brokers, who pretend they’re a marketplace serving many movers, but are nothing of the sort. You can use a federal government site to see if your mover is licensed and whether they have had complaints filed against them, including holding goods hostage.

Walters even cautions those who receive corporate relocation allowances and get set up with a moving service – they also have to be careful and do their homework to make sure they’re dealing with a reputable mover.

Here are some tips to avoid being scammed:

  • Don’t pay a deposit for an interstate move.
  • Don’t accept a telephone estimate or an estimate based on filling out a form on the internet.
  • Don’t hire a mover without checking out their licensing and complaint history.
  • Beware sound-alike names. If a company claims to be an agent for a major mover or has a name that sounds like one you recognize, go to the known website of the recognizable brand and see whether the mover you’re talking to is listed as a registered agent.
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Yes,moving companies want to insist that you get in-house estimates. After all, they have all the in-house estimators which Mom and Pop movers cannot afford. A recent INDEPENDANT study by JD Power and Associates found that consumers were equally happy with online and in-house estmates, and much less satisfied with telephone estimates. The established moving industry does not want you to know this. Bottom line-consumers like online estimating tools and movers don’t.
And who has the time to get 3 or 4 in-house meetings with moving salesmen? No wonder that fewer than half of consumers get more than one estimate!
Online forms are now available for consumers to prepare their own furniture inventory and submit ONE common inventory to seveal movers for bids. This is the type of competition that the moving industry does not want and consumers would benefit from with better selection and competive prices.

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