How to avoid moving scams

Ilyce R. Glink

Moving is stressful enough. But imagine having your belongings held hostage until you pay up to three or four times as much as you expected.

That's what happens if you're the victim of a moving scam, and con artists posing as legitimate moving companies are more popular than ever these days. It's easy to create authentic-looking websites online and scam unsuspecting homeowners and renters out of thousands of dollars.

So how can you avoid falling victim to a moving scam? Do your research, remember these tips and listen to your gut if you feel you're about to be taken for a ride.

Get estimates from three different movers. The estimates from three or four different moving companies may vary, but should all be in the same ballpark. If one estimate is significantly lower than the others, keep your guard up -- the 'company' may just take the money and run. This is especially true if the moving company asks for payment up front, or refuses to put anything in writing. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says movers must give written estimates.

In his blog, Tim Walker, founder of consumer advocate site, says you should seek out moving companies with brick-and-mortar offices in your area and that have been around at least 10 years. Nothing is better than being able to walk into a local office and talk to a real person if there is a problem.

If the company refuses to do an in-home estimate, or tries to give you an estimate based on cubic feet, Walker writes you should "send them packing (so to speak)."

Make sure you're speaking to the actual mover. You want to speak to a household goods mover, not a household goods broker. A household goods broker arranges for an authorized mover to provide the transportation but does not have trucks of its own.

The FMCSA warns that a broker does not have authority to provide you an estimate on behalf of a specific moving company. If they do, it may not be binding, and you could find yourself shelling out much more cash to the mover than you previously planned. Also, if your valuables are damaged during the move, a household goods broker is not responsible for the loss.

Ask the right questions. Make sure you get all the pertinent information, including: the business's full name and address, motor carrier (MC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) license numbers, phone numbers and an e-mail address.

If the company isn't licensed, find another mover — it's illegal for them to transport your goods without one. Verify the license numbers with the FMCSA to make sure they're real. Never use a moving company that isn't licensed by your state. You should be able to check the company's status online.

It's also important to find out if the company uses full-time employees or hires day laborers. Be wary of companies that use day labor. They may not have proper insurance and you could end up footing the bill for any injuries that occur on your property. You should ask to see a copy of the company's insurance.

The folks at Two Men and a Truck, a nationwide moving company franchise, suggest on their website that consumers ask these questions, too:

  • Does your company charge by the piece or by the hour?
  • Do you have a minimum charge? How do you charge after the minimum is met?
  • Are there any items you would charge extra money to move? Do you charge more for extra flights of stairs?
  • Do you charge for the travel time from your office to my home?
  • Are items insured during the move?
  • Do you carry Worker's Comp for your employees?

Go online and search for customer reviews of the company, and ask the company for references you can call. If you can't find anything online about the movers or they have no references, don't hire them.

Know your rights. Don't let anyone take advantage of you. Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable, and don't sign anything you don't fully understand. Movers must give you written estimates, so make sure you hold the companies to this. Just remember the estimate isn't necessarily binding.

The FMCSA says you have the right to be present each time your shipment is weighed. You should be, to make sure the movers aren't overcharging you. You also have the right to request a re-weigh of your shipment if you feel the first one is incorrect.

You also have the right to request complaint information about the moving company from the FMCSA under the Freedom of Information Act — for a potential fee. It's worth pointing out that if you're skeptical enough to consider paying for complaint information, you probably already know in your gut that you're not dealing with a reputable company.

All this research takes time, but it's worth it to protect yourself and your property. Hiring the right company can make all the difference between a great move and a terrible one.

Have you been the victim of a moving scam, or have tips you'd like to pass along to consumers interested in hiring movers? Share your stories and tips in the comments, or find me on Twitter @Glink.