Moving without tears

June 3, 2011

It’s stressful enough to move to a new home. You don’t need added worries about whether movers might hold your possessions hostage unless you pay double or triple the original estimated price for their services. Unfortunately, such doorstep dramas continue to plague the business.

“The moving industry is one of our most inquired- and complained-about industries,” said Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington.

“Moving complaints tend to be nasty complaints when we get them,” said Eric Friedman, director of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. Rogue movers sometimes take big deposits and never show up, or they give lowball estimates and jack up the price while holding your possessions. Even legitimate movers can surprise you with unexpected expenses if you don’t know which questions to ask upfront.

Consider the experience of the White household, when the family moved from Montgomery County to Charles County in January 2009. (Ms. White was interviewed for this story but asked that her first name not be used so the family could not be easily identified.)

White and her husband hired Rockville-based Best Time Movers, which they had found on the Internet. She was initially given an estimate of $680 for the move. But after the movers packed their belongings, loaded them on the truck and drove to their new home, they demanded payment of $2,428 before they would unload the truck.

White contested the charges with the driver, saying that the crew had been on the job only 15 1 / 2 hours (including travel time), not the 18 hours billed, according to a letter to the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. She said she was charged for packing materials they had not used.

Fearing she wouldn’t get her possessions, she ended up paying the full amount with a credit card, hoping that she could at least contest the charges later. But the movers had also had her sign a waiver of her right to file a complaint with her credit card company. She agreed to do so “because I felt threatened,” she said.

She called Best Time Movers several times over the next few days and asked to be reimbursed for the $905 that she said was excessive. She sent the company a written complaint itemizing the differences between the invoice and what she says the actual charges should have been.

Best Time Movers eventually offered her a credit of about $400, according to her letter. Because it was less than half of what she thought she was owed, White said she wanted to talk it over with her husband before accepting. But she said the offer was taken off the table when she did not accept it immediately.

She filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, which closed the matter, unresolved, in July 2009.

Douglas Numbers, an investigator with the Montgomery office, said it was difficult to resolve the complaint because the husband had signed a bill of lading for the full amount. According to the complaints, the movers required White’s husband to sign two blank forms before they would start packing their belongings. And she was unable to get the money back from her credit card company because she had signed the bill and the waiver.

White’s is one of two unresolved complaints against the company filed with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. (The other complaint was found not to have been within the office’s jurisdiction.)

Best Time Movers has an “F” rating with the BBB, which has received 82 complaints about the company over the past three years, primarily about billing, contract disputes and service issues. Johnson said that 53 were resolved but that 29 were either unresolved (including White’s) or the company did not respond.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates household movers, Best Time Movers, which has five trucks, has three complaints on record for last year under its “hostage” category, which covers disputes about relinquishing posession of a shipment. The company had one such complaint on record for 2009, two for 2008 and one for 2007. There are no such complaints recorded this year, and White said the complaint on file for 2009 was not hers.

Best Time Movers declined repeated telephone and e-mail requests seeking comment.

In retrospect, White said, she could have protected herself by doing more research before hiring movers.

“I should have gone to the BBB and RipOff Report [ripoffreport.com] initially,” she said. “I think it would have helped to have more than one estimate and to have more people on hand [during the move] to see how they did the packing and watch them counting [boxes and packing material]. We’ve had a lot of moves, and this was the all-time worst.”

Kimberly Lankford is a freelance writer.

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