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Consummate Consumer

Rogue Movers, Stalking the Net

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page C10

News last week of phony moving brokers shifting into high gear on the Internet is further evidence of a disturbing nationwide trend -- rogue movers gouging customers with high prices and holding their possessions hostage until being paid.

Concerned that moving fraud is tainting the industry, John Licata, president of Relocations Systems, a reputable moving firm based in Dulles, offered an insider's short list on how to avoid common mistakes that can turn a move into a disaster.

"There are a lot of good companies out there," says Licata, whose firm handles 3,000 to 4,000 moves annually. But there are scammers. "It is an unregulated business," he says. "Tonight you could hang a shingle on the wall and say you're a moving company, rent a U-Haul and go into business."

Protecting yourself starts with the estimate. "In the vast majority of the problems that I see, no one came out and visited the residence" to size up what's to be moved, Licata says. "They do the estimate over the telephone or on the Internet." Licata says it's "silly" for people to sign a deal, sight unseen, that involves thousands of dollars and determines who will pack and transport their most valuable possessions.

Get at least three movers to make estimates in person, he advises. If the range is too wide, from $2,000 to $5,000, say, don't assume the lowball bid is best. Moving scams typically start with a too-good-to-be-true estimate and end with scammers refusing to return property until the bill -- often three or four times the estimate -- is paid.

The safest approach is to hire name-brand movers; their affiliates have an investment in protecting their good name. "There are many good independent companies, but more complaints come from the non-brands," says Licata, whose firm is an agent of North American Van Lines.

But whether hiring a brand-name or independent mover, he says, "you need to really dig deep, get referrals, check for complaints, kick the tires. Go to their place of business. If the people look bad, the place looks unkempt, it's dirty and the people don't look professional, you might want to take your business elsewhere."

Stick to firms approved by the American Moving and Storage Association, he says. While the Alexandria-based movers' trade group doesn't recommend one company over another, its members are supposed to abide by its pricing standards and federal consumer protection rules.

Members of AMSA's certified program also go an extra step: They volunteer to uphold its code of conduct requiring disclosure of moving information to customers, written estimates, timely service, prompt response to complaints and arbitration of disputes.

Consumers should always buy the damage-and-loss insurance moving firms offer, says Licata. No matter how careful a company may be, things can get broken.

And check out the mover's insurance. "Ask your company to provide you with a current certificate of insurance to show they have liability, workers' comp, cargo coverage and vehicle coverage, et cetera," Licata says.

One of the first cost-cutting steps movers take to cut corners is to reduce their insurance or let the policy lapse. Having an up-to-date certificate "shows they have assets and they are a true business," he says. "If a company can't do that, I probably wouldn't use them."

Poison Prevention Week

About every seven minutes, a child under 5 visits an emergency room because of unintentional poisoning, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported today, kicking off National Poison Prevention Week.

Household products involved in unintentional poisonings included: personal-care items such as baby oil and mouthwash (containing ethanol), cleaning products such as drain openers and oven cleaners, over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin and cough and cold medicines, hydrocarbons such as lamp oil and furniture polish, and adult-strength vitamins and supplements containing iron.

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.comor write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company