How To Protect Yourself From Getting Scammed By Bad Movers

Image courtesy of Skip Nyegard

While you may feel yourself slowing down as the days grow longer and the temperatures go up, summer is the busiest time of the year for movers. Millions of us are likely to pack up and move house between June and September. But moving is a fraught proposition; it can be hard to tell the difference between a legitimate outfit that will properly bring you your stuff, and one that will steal from you or extort you for cash.

You might think of consumer complaints in general being the purview of the FTC, but movers are actually overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is under the Department of Transportation. And the FMCSA has an entire guide for folks who are about to move, and want to know what to watch out for.

Some of the best red flags and tips?

Tip: Read The Manual

It turns out that movers taking your stuff across state lines are required to give you the FMCSA’s consumer rights and responsibilities handbook as well as the Ready to Move checklist [PDF].

Whether or not you receive those documents from your mover, it’s wise to have a look at both when you’re early in your planning stages. The checklist in particular will help you sort out what records you need to obtain and keep beforehand just in case anything goes wrong on or after moving day.

Tip: Shop Around, and Look at Ratings

The guide suggests doing exactly what most of us do naturally: Asking for personal recommendations from friends, family, and your immediate social networks when you’re on the market for a mover.

But also, you should have a look at some online sources when you’ve got a short-list of companies you’re considering.

There’s always the Better Business Bureau, which is a great place to start. In 2017, though, you can also scope out review sites like Yelp or even a company’s Facebook page to see if there are a critical mass of unhappy customers making the same kind of complaint.

Tip: Check if They’re Registered

The FMCSA has a searchable online database of movers who are registered to do interstate moves. (If you’re not crossing state lines, or using a local mover that only operates within a single state, the database won’t help you.)

The database won’t give you the same kind of granular anecdotal information that recommendations and reviews will, but it does tell you if a company is actually legitimate and registered, and it will show you complaints that have been filed against that company within the last four years.

You can also look up a given moving company with your state’s consumer protection office; usually these are divisions of your state’s attorney general office. You can look yours up here.

Tip: Get Written Estimates

Any moving company you’re planning to deal with should send someone to your home to perform an on-site inspection of your furniture and goods to do an estimate, and then should give you a copy of that estimate in writing.

Movers that breeze through it over the phone or through an online form are probably lowballing you, and you may be in for an unpleasant surprise — either legitimate or somehow magically inflated — when they show up to start hauling. And if you never had an in-writing offer both sides agreed to beforehand, you don’t have anything to fall back on if that happens.

If your mover either doesn’t agree to or won’t offer to come have a look and do a written estimate before you sign them, that’s a red flag.

And that really is “estimates,” plural. Getting an estimate from one company doesn’t obligate you to use their services; get competing estimates from others, too. Shop around! If one company’s offer is significantly out of line from similar businesses’ estimates, there’s probably a reason.

Tip: Pay Attention to Liability

How much is your stuff worth? Literally?

The FMCSA has a page dedicated to explaining valuation and insurance, because it’s important. You don’t want to pay too much to insure your stuff when it’s out of your hands — but you don’t want to pay too little, either.

If your heirloom furniture is worth $10,000 and the movers break it, well, $0.60 per pound of insurance isn’t going to help you very much. But neither do you need to carry a whole lot of insurance on a box of stuff that isn’t fragile, you don’t like all that much, and could replace very easily.

The things you do could also limit a mover’s liability. For example, if you pack all your own stuff, the mover may not be liable if it’s damaged in transit. Do your research first, to make sure you have the coverage you need.

Red Flag: Lack of Information

A legitimate company will have a physical address (that you can throw into a map search on Google) and provide information (that you can verify) about their registration and insurance.

They’ll also probably have a working website, and when you call their number someone — human or recorded — will say the company name when they answer. If you call a number and someone saying, “Moving company?” answers, or sounds like they’re on a cell phone in the middle of someplace that is not at all a moving company, be wary.

Red Flag: Refusing To Give you an Estimate

If you speak with someone who just names a number on the phone but won’t put in writing — or, worse, says that they’ll determine the amount after seeing and loading your stuff — that’s a bad sign. Go with someone else.

Red Flag: Demanding cash or a large deposit up front.

It’s not out of bounds for a moving company to want you to pay some kind of nominal deposit to reserve their time, or to request credit card information, on or before moving day.

But if your mover wants of cash money, or charges a payment to your credit card, before they load and deliver your stuff, watch out. Using a credit card gives you the option to file a dispute or chargeback if your mover isn’t what they seem, but handing over cash means you may never see your money back if there’s a problem.

Red Flag: Blank Documents

You’re going to have to sign some forms as part of the move. But if any of them are blank, partially blank, or filled out with incorrect information, watch out!

The mover should provide you with an estimate, an order for service, a bill of lading, and an inventory list, at a minimum, for your move. (If they don’t, that’s a problem, too.) Read them all carefully before you sign them, and make sure the information on them is what you expect to see.

And if something does go wrong…

Movers are required to provide you with information about how to settle a dispute before they haul your stuff away across state lines. Read and keep those documents, in case you do end up with a grievance.

You can also file a formal complaint of your own right over here at the National Consumer Complaint Database — and if something has really gone wrong, contact your state consumer protection or attorney general’s office.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.