Moving scams come in a variety of forms. These scams usually occur when rogue movers engage in activities like low-balling estimates, holding goods hostage, or demanding cash-only payments. At Great Guys, we know that moving is a stressful season of life that can be further complicated if you hire the wrong moving company to assist with your transition. You’ve likely heard the horror stories of rogue movers who turn out to not be what they purport. This article covers all the tips you need to avoid long distance moving scams.
1. Don’t Hire Unlicensed or Uninsured Long Distance Moving Companies
Whether you are moving locally or out of state, make sure the mover you hire is both licensed and insured. Some businesses may present themselves as professional moving companies, but then show up on moving day in a rented or unmarked truck. Before you hire a mover, check out their credentials online through the appropriate regulatory agency to make sure they are current on registration and carry the mandated insurance policies. When the truck arrives on moving day, make sure it is clearly marked with the US Department of Transportation number assigned to the moving company that you hired. There is certainly risk involved when hiring an unlicensed or uninsured mover:
Risk of Using an Unlicensed Mover
An unlicensed moving company has nothing to lose. Since they aren’t licensed, there isn’t a governmental authority ensuring they comply with standards meant to protect consumers. A company like this might engage in shady business practices like hostage loading (see below), intentionally low-balling estimates, or hiring illegal labor. If a business doesn’t care enough about its reputation to obtain the proper licensing, they don’t deserve your business.
Risk of Using an Uninsured Mover
Using an uninsured mover may leave your things completely exposed to the risks of theft or breakage, meaning you would have to pay to replace the items yourself. By law, moving companies are required to maintain a minimum level of insurance coverage. While coverage levels vary by jurisdiction, this requirement is meant to provide some compensation in case something happens to your goods during transport.
Who Governs Long Distance Movers?
Long distance moving companies are governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). You can easily look up a moving company in the federal database to check its safety record and registration status. It’s also a good idea to see if the moving company is part of the American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA) and any local or statewide moving associations. Professional associations like AMSA set standards for their members that often exceed regulatory requirements.
2. Be Wary of Moving Brokers
A moving broker serves as an intermediary between the moving company and the consumer. The broker’s objective is to sell the moving services and then pass the sold job off to a 3rd party moving company. Typically, brokers do not own any moving trucks or do any of the actual moving. Often, brokers have relationships with multiple moving companies and share in the profits from booked jobs.
Potential Dangers of Working With Moving Brokers
While working with a moving broker isn’t inherently a bad idea, rogue brokers are notorious for perpetrating moving scams. While these manifest in numerous ways, here are some of the potential risks of using a broker:
- Brokers typically work with several moving companies, so you don’t always know who your actual mover is until they show up on moving day. This means you are relying on the broker to properly vet movers to make sure they are licensed and insured.
- Brokers don’t own or operate moving trucks, so they don’t have the expertise of a moving company. As salespeople who often don’t have experience in the logistics of moving, they may not be able to answer all the questions you might have about the details of your move.
- Brokers may provide customers with lowball over-the-phone quotes sight unseen. You could be surprised later when the moving company comes back with a much higher rate.
- Brokers may overpromise and underdeliver. Generally, brokers sell the consumer on the job and then turn around and sell the booked job to one of their movers. They may promise you a certain pick-up or delivery date, only to discover there isn’t a moving company able to provide services on those days.
Potential Benefits of Working With a Moving Broker
While working with a moving broker does have risks, some consider working with a broker to be more convenient. Brokers already have an established network of moving companies, so rather than calling around to multiple companies to check availability and pricing, you can rely on the broker to do all the research for you. If you decide to work with a moving broker for an interstate move, make sure they comply with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration guidelines under 49 C.F.R. §371:
- Must be registered as a broker with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
- Must disclose their status as a moving broker in advertisements and on their website
- Must base estimates on the published tariffs of the moving company
- Must disclose a list of the moving companies that they work with. Note these moving companies must be registered with the FMCSA and must have a written agreement in place with the broker.
- Must provide you with appropriate documentation from FMCSA
- Must arrange for an in-home survey if your home is within a 50-mile radius of the moving carrier
If a broker doesn’t abide by the above regulations, don’t use them!
3. Ask for an In-Home Moving Estimate
Most brokers and moving companies offer free over-the-phone estimates to give you an idea of what their services will cost. Long distance moves are based on the weight of the shipment. When you call to get a quote, the sales agent will ask you questions about the size of the home and any unusual or large objects included in your shipment. Sales people use the number of rooms in a house to approximate the cubic volume of a shipment, which in turn is used to estimate the weight of the shipment.
The biggest risk with estimates is getting a low-ball over-the-phone quote and then a nasty surprise on moving day when the shipment weighs in at far more than the estimated weight. When it comes to getting an estimate on an interstate move, make sure you understand your rights.
Moving Quotes & Your Rights
- Right to a Physical Survey: When it comes to an out-of-state move, you should always request the mover or broker send out an in-home estimator. This estimator will walkthrough your home and take a detailed inventory of your items to provide you with a more accurate moving quote. By law, under 49 C.F.R. §375.401(a)(1), if your residence is within 50 miles of the mover’s place of business, they must perform an in-person survey of your goods before furnishing you with an estimate.
- Right to Get It in Writing: Under the same code section, FMCSA also mandates that movers furnish customers with a written estimate based on the physical survey performed. Make sure the estimate is complete and signed by both parties. Keep a copy of the estimate in case of a later dispute.
- Right to Waive the Physical Survey: If you prefer to accept an estimate without a physical survey, 49 C.F.R. §375.401(a)(2) gives you the option of signing a physical survey waiver agreement.
4. Understand the Estimate Provided
Interstate moving companies may provide binding or non-binding estimates. Here’s what these types of estimates entail:
With a binding estimate, the moving company agrees to move your shipment for a set fee, without regard to the actual weight of the shipment. Under 49 C.F.R. §375.403, to provide a binding estimate, the mover must perform a physical survey, provide the estimate in writing, attach the estimate to the bill of lading, clearly state the nature of the estimate on its face, and clearly describe the shipment and all services provided. With a binding estimate, a mover may only increase the original estimate with an amendment. If this happens prior to loading the truck, the mover must provide a revised written estimate to include the additional goods or services to be provided. If the need for additional goods or services is discovered after the bill of lading is issued, the mover must give you one hour to decide whether you want the additional services performed. If you agree, the mover must execute a written amendment and attach to the bill of lading. Be aware that movers can legally charge a fee for providing a binding estimate.
Binding Not-to-Exceed Estimate
This type of estimate is the best-case scenario for you, the customer. Under this type of arrangement, the mover may not charge more than the original estimate, but may charge less if the shipment weighs in at less than the original estimate.
Under a non-binding estimate, the mover may adjust the final price of the move based upon the actual weight of the shipment. Under 49 C.F.R. §375.405, the non-binding estimate must be reasonably accurate, based on a physical survey of the goods and the estimated weight or volume of the goods and the services required disclose that the final charges may exceed the estimate. Additionally, the mover may not charge a fee for providing a non-binding estimate and may not charge more than 110 percent of the non-binding estimate upon delivery. If, after the original estimate is provided, you require the shipment of additional goods or require additional moving services, the mover does not have to honor the original agreement, but may negotiate a revised written non-binding estimate to include these additional services. If the truck is loaded before a revised non-binding estimate is executed, the moving company may not collect more than 110 percent of the original estimate. If the need for additional services is discovered after the bill of lading is issued, the moving company must give you one hour to decide if you want the additional services. If you agree, the mover must execute a written amendment and attach to the bill of lading.
5. Understand Your Delivery Rights
Not only is it important to understand the type of estimate you’re receiving, it’s important to understand both your rights and the mover’s rights under that agreement.
Your Rights Under Binding and Non-Binding Estimates
- Collect-On-Delivery Agreement: Under 49 C.F.R. §375.407(a), if the customer pays 100 percent of the binding estimate or up to 110 percent of the original non-binding estimate, plus any additional agreed-upon charges requested after the bill of lading was issued, the moving company must release the shipment at delivery. The mover may also collect charges for impracticable operations not to exceed 15 percent of all other charges. Ask the mover for a list of impracticable operations from their published tariff.
- Partial Delivery: Under 49 C.F.R. §375.407(c), if the mover only delivers part of the original agreed-upon shipment, they may require payment for that percentage of the binding or non-binding estimate. For example, if the original estimate covered 10,000-pound shipment, but the mover only delivers 7500, the mover may only demand payment for 75 percent of not more than 100 percent of the binding estimate or 110 percent of the non-binding estimate. Once prorated payment is received the mover must relinquish the goods.
- The mover must honor the form of payment previously agreed upon and included in the estimate. This means if the estimate states check or credit card as acceptable forms of payment, the mover may not demand cash upon delivery.
- If payment is made in compliance with the above requirements and the mover refuses to complete delivery of the shipment, the mover is subject to cargo delay claims under 49 C.F.R. §370 for failure of reasonable dispatch.
Less than reputable moving companies will scam customers by failing to provide the required written estimate, providing incomplete estimates, or promising egregiously low-ball estimates. Once they’ve taken possession of a customer’s goods, these scam artists might claim you owe them more than the originally agreed upon amount and threaten to keep your goods hostage until you hand over cash. It’s imperative that you have a signed written estimate detailing the goods to be transported and services to be provided to have full recourse in this type of situation.
Under 49 CFR §375.901, a mover or broker who fails to comply with consumer protection regulations may results in penalties under 49 U.S.C. Chapter 149, Civil and Criminal Penalties. Under 49 U.S.C. § 14915, the civil and criminal penalties for holding a household good shipment hostage may include:
- Fines: $10,000 for each violation; each day may be considered a separate violation.
- Suspension: Suspension of a mover or broker’s FMCSA registration for 1-3 years
- Imprisonment: Up to two years of imprisonment
The Moving Company’s Rights
Hostage loading must be distinguished from situations where the mover may legally hold your goods. If you fail to pay-on-delivery for your shipment, the moving company may put your belongings in storage at your expense until payment is received.
Before you hire a long distance moving company, make sure you do your research. Protect yourself by using the FMCSA database to ensure the mover is licensed and insured, understand the risks and benefits of using a moving broker, request a physical survey of your goods, and make sure to get a complete estimate in writing. If you have issues with a non-compliant broker or mover, immediately contact the FMCSA. While FMCSA cannot settle claims, reporting violations to this agency may trigger legal action against the mover.