When Sheryl Leslie Katzman, a 34-year-old artist and writer, decided to move from Dallas to Washington last summer, she didn't suspect that five months later her household goods and winter clothes would still be in a Dallas warehouse.
But then she didn't expect that the company she hired to do the moving would increase the weight of her cargo - she says fraudulently - from 2,500 pounds to 4,040 pounds, thus raising the price from R556 to $1,000, including storage. She refused to sign and order for service, and the goods sat where they were.
Finally, after five month of angry negotiations with the company and an investigation by the Interstate Commerce Commission, she signed the order, assured her goods would be weighed at 2,000 pounds. She expects them to arrive soon, but unless the company meets several other of her conditions she might not pay and the controversy will drag on.
"I fell the company is in violation of ICC regulations and consumer morality," Katzman said in an interview. "I want my goods, I want it documented what they did, and I want my winter clothes. It's traumatic enough to move without being bilked."
Katzman was apparently a victim of "weight-bumping," a practive in which moving companies or individual drivers illegally increase the weight of the cargo to charge higher prices for the move. A. Daniel O'Neal, chairman of the ICC, which regulates the trucking and household moving industry, announced a program last May to crack down on weight bumping.
O'Neal said weight bumping happens in about 10 per cent of the roughly 1 million household moves a year and costs Americans about $20 million a year. He said many families lose more than $500 a move. That a large number of Americans could be victims of this practise is reflected in 1976 statistics from the Census Bureau showing that, on the average, Americans move 12 times during their lifetimes and that 18.6 per cent of Americans change their residences during a year.
The 10 largest moving companies account for about 30 per cent of the household moves. In many cases these campanies consist of a network of individual agents, owner-operators, who contract with the companies to do the actual moves. The ICC and the industry have known for years that bumping goes on. The companies usually blame the drivers, and the drivers blame the companies. Lewis Teeple, assistant director of the Office of Enforcement and Investigation of the ICC, said the practice can happen at any level, by the driver or the driver in collusion with the agent or the company.
After a company makes an estimate and gets a signed order for service from the shipper, the usual procedure is to weigh the truck empty (tare weight), load it with cargo and then reweight it (gross weight), each time obtaining a weight ticket. If the person making the move does not accompany the driver to the weigh scales - and sometime even if he or she does - a number of things can be done to bump the weight up.
One way is to get the tare weight with an empty gas tank, load the goods, get gas and then reweight. Many trucks can hold 200 gallons. At six pounds a gallon, that's an extra 1,200 pounds. Other techniques includes bribing scale operators to put higher weights on the weight tickets and adding a few hundred pounds of concrete or a couple of burly workmen on the back of the truck.
"The easiest way," said John Doyle, a Washington mechanic and former household mover, is to go to a truck stop with a scale, and give the guy who works there $10 to stick a screw-driver in the scale to read heavier. And you can tell him how much you want him to move the dial." Doyle said that in the six months he was a mover, the driver he worked for paid someone off about one a month, pulled the empty gas tank trick four times, and added three to four hundred pounds of concrete and rocks on just about ever load.
The best remedy for the shipper, he said, is to have the load reweighed at the point of destination and let the driver know that in advance.
Chairman O'Neal said the ICC is now "very serious" about stopping the practice. As part of the crackdown, he said, the commission is monitoring weighings more closely, warning companies of the penalties, increasing consumer awareness about the problem, working more intensively with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI and seeking criminal indictments.
"Weight bumping is a felony," said Stanley Bravernman, an attorney with the ICC's Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation. "We have to chase people like bank robbers." Braverman said increased ICC efforts in this area so far have resulted in three convictions with other cases pending, and include fines and/or jail sentences. But he said it is hard to find violators and even harder to get the evidence to convict them.
When people bring complaints to the attention of the ICC, however, they don't always get the cooperation they would like. Katzman says it took weeks of phone calls and runaround before she could interest the ICC in her case. She said she feels the commission is as much a part of the problem as the moving companies.
"It looks like there was weight bump in her case and several other violations as well," an ICC official said, finally, after several telephone interviews with a reporter and meetings with Katzman ". . . It needs an investigation, and we're making one."
Consumer, advocate Ralph Nader, for one, isn't buying the ICC's new campaign, which he says is a lot of public relations.
"Judging by my feedback." Nader said in a telephone interview, "weight bumping is still a serious problem. The ICC recognizes it verbally worth beans. When has it pulled any licenses?"
Paul Poulos, a former household mover for five years and now executive director of PROD, a teamster reform group, put it a little differently:
"I have seen companies make up their own weight tickets and arbitrarily write in the weight. How the ICC can effectively monitor it [weight bumpings] is beyond me. The scope of it is mind boggling . . . The ICC is probably the biggest, most . . . bureaucratic agency in this government. It handles complaints arbitrarily and just goes through the motions."
O'Neal said the ICC has not increased its budget or hired new people to monitor this phase of the industry. But he has gone on radio and television shows to discuss the problem and did say the commision has assigned it a "high priority" status. He said he is trying to "multiply" the enforcement effort by encouraging state attorneys general and local U.S. attorneys to devote attention to it.
"I agree that revocation of licenses is important," O'Neal said in response to Nader's charge. "But criminal sanctions are equally important, and the word is out. People won't just get their wrist slapped anymore. Where we can obtain a conviction, we will."
Part of the solution appears to be educating drivers that bumping is a felony, punishable by jail or a stiff fine or both. Welby M. Frantz, president of the American Movers Conference, a 1,200-member trade association for the moving industry, said his group proposed a program to educate drivers and companies, to reweigh loads on a random basis, and to provide decals and placards to be located in truck cabs and weigh stations saying, "It's the law."
But Frantz did not appear overly concerned about the problem. He said he has never found that companies weight-bump, and as for owner-operators, "If there are any, I hope we've eliminated them." Asked how his program is working, he replied, "we haven't found any crooks yet."
The ICC get 10,000 to 12,000 complaints a year from consumers about the household moving industry, although more relate to late deliveries or damaged good than to weight bumping. ICC statistics for shipments by the 20 largest movers in 1976 show that, on the average, they overestimated weights by 10 per cent or more 27 per cent of the time, compared to underestimating by 10 per cent or more 24 per cent of the time. Of the four largest, Allied Van Lines overestimated by 10 per cent or more 26 per cent of the time, Aero Mayflower 33 per cent of the time, Bekins Van Lines 35 per cent, and North American Van Lines 24 per cent. The figures for underestimating by 10 per cent or more were 26 per cent, 25 per cent, 26 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, no one, aside from the ICC, seems to be doing much about it. Neither the consumer groups like Nader's Congress Watch and Center for Responsive Law nor the Consumers Federation of America have anyone keeping tabs either on weight bumping or what the ICC is or is not doing, about it. Nor have staff members from the appropriate House or Senate oversight committes looked into it.
One of the rare weight bump watchers is Arthurs E. Rowse of Consumer News, who wrote a booklet on how not to get ripped off when choosing a household mover.
"The ICC has been the biggest problem," Rowse sakd. "Why hasn't Congress held hearing? The reason is the power of the trucking industry, which has owned the ICC for many years."