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Moving Companies: Tricks of the Trade

How to Protect Yourself From Unpleasant Surprises

Increasing costs, vague contracts, a lack of oversight and a never-ending web of online misinformation continue to plague the moving industry when it comes to out-of-state moves.

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Even though 35 million Americans pack up and move between states each year, many don’t realize that they’re entering difficult terrain.

In 2011, Laura Esfeller began to do her homework the moment that she learned that her husband was offered a job in Las Vegas—2,000 miles from their home in Florida. She knew that a cross-country move with two small children would be challenging, so she wanted to ensure that she found a reputable mover that would deliver their belongings in a timely matter.

Esfeller turned to the Internet, and after a lot of research, she and her husband settled on Superior Moving & Storage. Superior had great online reviews, and the company claimed that it could transport the Esfellers’ possessions from door to door in 3–5 days, which beat the competition’s estimate of 3–18 days.

After the Esfellers’ belongings were on Superior’s truck, the company’s dispatcher called to say the delivery could take between 5 and 15 days. Esfeller thought that timeframe seemed reasonable given the distance of the move. However, when a second call came in, she was less understanding.

Superior called while the truck was at a weigh station and said it would cost $1,000 more, Esfeller says. Superior didn’t give them an option. “It was, ‘You better pay us the $1,000 if you want to see your stuff.’” So the Esfellers gave their debit card over the phone.

Thirty days later, the Esfellers still hadn’t seen their belongings. “Unsympathetic would be a very polite way of putting it,” Esfeller says of Superior’s response. “It was horrific. I wasn’t even sure if we would ever see our stuff again.” After 31 days of excuses, angry phone calls and the expenses that a family of four naturally incurs when their belongings go missing for a month, Superior showed up in Las Vegas. For the inconvenience, they offered the Esfellers a whopping $100 off their $4,000 bill. “I was blown away,” Esfeller says. Superior says it did nothing wrong.

Attorney Michael Garcia, who is the author of “Moving 101,” tells Consumers Digest that nothing about this transaction was illegal. Nowhere in the law does it say when goods must be delivered—that’s a huge consumer misunderstanding, he says. It actually is a contractual matter.

It’s possible that the mover breached a contract, Garcia says, but that doesn’t mean that the company operated criminally. What’s more likely, he says, is that the consumer didn’t understand the contract.

The truth is that a lax set of laws that govern interstate moves makes it easy for movers to do as they please. (In-state moves can go awry, too. However, consumer-protection laws that govern intrastate moves generally are stricter, and those moves cost way less, thus our focus on interstate moves.)

After studying reports and speaking with 23 industry professionals, experts and consumers, our investigation found that a lack of government oversight and consumer education—plus a labyrinth of misinformation on the Internet—cause consumers to walk away from their moves with a sour taste in their mouth and fewer dollars in their wallet than they expected at the onset. Laws that regulate the industry make it the norm for movers to provide low estimates and then increase the price after they’re in possession of a consumer’s goods. When you combine that with an ineffectual watchdog agency, confusing contracts and a system that hands most of the cards to movers, you have a perfect setup for shady business practices, terrible customer service and, in some cases, outright fraud. The worst cases that we identified include so-called hostage situations, in which movers threaten to sell consumers’ goods unless the consumers cough up more cash.

It’s a ton of cash, too—a lot more than before. American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA), which is the industry’s national trade organization, reports that the average cost of an interstate move was $5,630 in 2013—the latest data that are available. That’s up 41 percent from an average of $3,978 in 2005, which is more than twice the rate of inflation over that time.

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