When Relying on Online Brokers, Beware 'Move It or Lose It' Scams

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Internet has become a wonderful tool to find brokers to do the legwork in hunting down the lowest prices for everything from airline tickets to vacation rental homes.

So naturally people are turning to Web-based brokers to help them choose a moving company. However, that may not be so smart or cost-effective. Using a moving broker may just lead you to a scam.

Don't let a sophisticated-looking Web site fool you into thinking you're dealing with a legitimate company, says David Sparkman, vice president of communications for the American Moving and Storage Association.

A moving broker acts as a middleman arranging for a consumer to find a mover either through an affiliated moving carrier or by posting details online of a consumer's move. In the latter case, moving companies bid for a job based on details collected by the broker. The broker typically collects a deposit or a fee based on its estimate of how much a move will cost, Sparkman says.

There are several broker scams. In one, a broker will promise to arrange the move for a low price. You pay a deposit or fee. You are given a date and information about the mover. The scheduled moving day comes, and the mover never shows. Turns out the broker did not arrange a mover. Your calls or complaints to the broker go unanswered.

That's what happened to Nikki Lehnhoff, who was nearly scammed out of $750. Lehnhoff said she began looking in February for a company to move her belongings from Florida to Colorado. She actually tried to avoid hiring a broker. The company she settled on assured her that it was not a broker, even though it was registered as one with the Department of Transportation. (Interstate moving companies and brokers are required to register.) Lehnhoff says the company explained the discrepancy by claiming it occasionally acted as a broker. That should have been a red flag, she says.

Lehnhoff says she confirmed her moving date several times and charged the $750 deposit to her credit card. She was told the move would cost $1,600. Lehnhoff flew to Florida from Colorado to supervise the move, but the mover never showed up.

To make matters worse, Lehnhoff says, the company only responded to her telephone calls the day of the move and afterward when she called from a different number or when she used another name. Fortunately for Lehnhoff, she had charged the deposit. The credit card company refunded the charges after she complained.

In another scam, a consumer receives an estimate through a broker that is very low compared with other quotes. However, once the household goods are loaded, the moving company says the cost of the move will be significantly higher than the estimate. If the consumer refuses to pay, the belongings are held hostage until the bill is paid.

In such a scheme, the broker and mover may be in cahoots. On the other hand, the broker may not know about the mover's intention to submit a low-ball bid only to increase it once your belongings are loaded. In any case, consumers need to be skeptical of extremely low estimates.

This "hostage belongings" scam snared Sharon, who spoke on condition that her last name not be disclosed because she fears retaliation from other moving brokers. Because of her experience, she volunteers to investigate moving companies and brokers for http://MovingScam.com, a Web site that provides consumer tips and warnings about dishonest movers.

Sharon, who now lives in New York, moved from Oregon to Virginia three years ago. The broker she found online estimated that the items in her two-bedroom apartment could be moved across the country for $1,300.

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