Moving companies must be scrutinizedTHE HOUSING SCENE

WASHINGTON — A federal grand-jury indictment in late January against more than a dozen household movers who allegedly defrauded and extorted hundreds of customers across the country should set off alarm bells to anyone who is moving from one house to another.

Complaints against moving companies are normal. The Better Business Bureau fielded nearly 10,000 grievances from consumers in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available.

Movers often are late and take less than the utmost care of your property. But the 14 defendants — including drivers and salesmen from two companies operating in California and Florida — went way beyond that, according to a three-year investigation by the FBI, the Department of Transportation and the IRS.

These supposed scam artists offered their clients extremely low estimates, the indictment charges. Then, once they took possession of their customers’ goods, they jacked up the price and withheld delivery until people paid the inflated price.

Whether you are moving across the street or across the country, these kinds of con men are lurking, as their numerous victims can attest.

“Incompetent and even deceptive movers are out there,” says Craig Broback, president of Graebel Van Lines in Denver, Colo. “Thousands of people each year fall prey to theft, extensive hidden costs and bait-and-switch tactics.”

To be sure, the stiff competition among the numerous household moving companies vying for your business makes it difficult to separate the good guys from the bad. But if you spend some time researching your choices, you’ll go a long way toward protecting yourself and your property.

“Selecting a mover shouldn’t be a 15-minute decision,” says Broback, whose company is a division of a worldwide relocation firm that has moved more than 1 million people since 1950. “You’re looking for someone you can trust with the belongings that make up a big part of your life.”

For starters, obtain references from your friends, neighbors and relatives. Even your real estate agent may have some suggestions. After all, he’s also in the business of moving people from house to house.

Also, ask the moving companies for references. Since movers are likely to give you the names of folks they can count on to offer glowing testimonials, ask for a list of their last 10 moves. Then, make sure that you call those people, asking, among other things, whether they were careful and on time and whether they would use the company again.

Web sites may or may not be another source for leads. But if you use the Internet, make sure that the company’s site and collateral material provides licensing information, offers valuable moving tips, spells out possible warranties, lists a local address and notes that crews are put through background checks and are trained to perform their tasks.

“Consumers need to exercise caution when using the Internet,” warns Linda Bauer Darr, president of the American Moving and Storage Association in Alexandria, Va. “Just because a mover has a Web site doesn’t mean it is licensed or insured. It just means it paid for a site. The Web site may look like a million bucks, but it could end up steering you toward a mover who is out to cheat you.”

Also determine whether the person you are dealing with actually works for the firm he is representing or is a broker. Brokers arrange for transportation only, so they should not represent themselves as the mover.

And if a broker offers an estimate, it isn’t binding on the mover, so you may have to pay more. Also, a broker isn’t liable for loss or damage.

After you have narrowed your choices to the top three, check their backgrounds and complaint histories with the BBB, AMSA and the Department of Transportation. If you are moving to another state, confirm that your movers are registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and that they have a DOT number, as required by law.

Never select a mover on price alone, or on a verbal promise made over the telephone. Always require a physical, in-home estimate. “Seeing firsthand the size and quantity of your belongings is the only way to effectively estimate costs,” says Broback of Graebel Van Lines.

Also ask whether your goods will be kept on the truck in storage or transferred to a warehouse. If storage is necessary, visit the mover’s warehouse to be certain the facilities are in good condition — or even exist.

This is another “see for yourself” step that Broback says will help protect you from doing business with a rogue mover.

Along the same lines, if there are any long, narrow driveways or other possible quirks to your move, make sure that the mover visits your destination, too. Extra labor may be necessary, which could lead to additional charges. Ditto shuttle trucks, stairs, parking problems and other extra challenges.

Get written estimates and compare them, side by side, so you can identify unrealistic lowball offers that could mean extra charges later. If one or more of the estimates don’t line up, ask that they be resubmitted so you can compare apples to apples.

Nonbinding estimates are not always accurate, so the actual charges can change. By law, though, movers are required to deliver your goods for no more than 10 percent above a nonbinding estimate.

However, that only holds if you don’t change the scope of the work after the estimate was provided.

So don’t add an extra stop or two to drop off, say, a bedroom set at the kids’ house, or include a number of items that weren’t on the original estimate. Do that, and you could pay dearly.

Binding estimates guarantee the total cost of the move based on the quantities and services shown on the estimate. But again, any changes and the estimate is out the window.

If you agree to a nonbinding estimate, confirm the method of payment in writing. Whether cash (not a good idea at all), certified or cashier’s check, money order or credit card, it should be payable when the move is complete.

If an up-front deposit or prepayment is required, tell the mover to take his truck and shove it. You’ll find someone else.

Estimates will be based on a number of factors, with weight ranking high. So before your stuff is packed onto the truck, ask for a ticket that shows the weight of the empty or partially full truck (if you are sharing a load with another family). Once your goods are on board, obtain a “heavy” weight ticket — before someone else’s goods are loaded, and before the truck’s fuel tanks are topped off. Consider being present at each weigh-in — it’s your right.

Now subtract the lower number from the higher number, and you’ll know the weight of your goods and yours alone. This will ensure that you are paying only for the actual weight of your belongings.

Your goods are not covered by your mover’s liability insurance.

By law, movers are only liable to pay 60 cents per pound for lost or damaged goods.

But you might be eligible for more protection through your homeowners or renters insurance policy.

If not, you can opt for more coverage, either by paying for full-replacement protection through the carrier or from a third-party insurer. But be certain to read the policy and understand the terms and conditions.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing finance industry publications.

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