July 17, 2020
By: Deborah Childress
TAMPA Fla. – Summertime is the most active season for moving in Florida. But moving company scams abound, leaving victims with furniture and other possessions they may not see for weeks or months, or ever. Meanwhile, the victims have paid moving brokers they thought were moving companies upfront deposits by credit card, not realizing they are only a middleman service that will then assign the moving job to what proves to be a shady moving company that hires unskilled, temporary workers.
These shady companies load their trucks or vans with a consumer’s possessions, then demand hundreds or thousands more in cold hard cash, beyond the original estimate, claiming your cubic feet maximum (versus weight maximum) is more expensive than the original estimate quoted. No credit cards, sometimes no money orders, and no ACH payments are allowed. If the driver is not paid the cash demand, threats of dumping already-loaded goods on the curve will follow – or the driver will get in the truck and drive off with the goods, leaving no information as to where the consumer’s possessions are going. If the consumer ever retrieves their possessions, much will be broken and beyond repair.
The Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General lists 33 moving company fugitives wanted for fraud, conspiracy, and extortion. Many of them represent a clique from South Florida, some armed and dangerous. Others represent what are typically family-based operations that sometimes own more than one company of any kind. These operations always obtain the appropriate licenses and registrations to operate legitimately and sometimes only scam a portion of their customers. When you research websites of the companies, they may appear to be members of important trade associations and regulatory agencies by the presence of seals and logos, but in reality, they are not. Great reviews from yelp to Google to their websites will be fake.
Using SEO (search engine optimization) tactics, they are often the top listings seen when searching for moving companies. The ads at the very top are also frequently scam artists.
Steve Baker, Attorney and International Investigations Specialist for the Better Business Bureau just released a new investigative study into U.S. and Canadian moving company scams. It indicates that 13,000 complaints and negative reviews were received by the Bureau annually, from 2017 through 2019. The BBB reports 1,335 movers have “F” ratings – mostly due to excessive and unresolved complaints. Many moving scams are located in Florida or California, but they can be located anywhere, moving consumers from state to state while falsely claiming they have multiple offices. Baker’s report indicates that in an effort to help consumers, major moving firms are offering free assistance to troubled consumers through a service called “MoveRescue.”
According to experts, the actual number of consumers scammed by moving companies is much higher than any government or private consumer service registers because most consumers do not complain. According to the BBB study, the Federal Trade Commission believes fewer than 10% of victims report their complaints to any helping entity. Some who do complain go directly to the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which found that 57% of its 4,780 complaints involved overcharging. Some complainants contact their local police or sheriff, but this type of law enforcement does not investigate scams, which are considered civil matters. State attorneys general, however, do accept complaints and investigate. The FMCSA also offers a guide to protect against moving scams.
If you suspect you are a moving scam victim, you should register a complaint with the Better Business Bureau under the company name. If the company name is not listed, the BBB will create a new review and complaint file for it. If the business has been flagged as suspicious and is under legal investigation, the BBB report will state, “Government Action Warning.” To officially start an investigation, you can contact your Florida State Attorney General’s Office (Ashley Moody), the FBI’s IC3 internet crime unit or the Federal Trade Commission. Between these three contacts, a resolution for your moving problem can begin, and a BBB report can begin to alert the public of a problem company and motivate the moving scam to respond and resolve the issue. However, since alerting the public and resolving your issue takes time, you should spend more time asking targeted questions to moving companies and doing more comprehensive research.
- Ask the company you are speaking with if they are a moving company or a broker.
Scammers get their work through brokers, although not all brokers and not all moving contractors working with brokers are scams. However, some brokers are profiting off the scams, and some direct moving companies are scams.
- Request an in-person estimate. Most scams won’t provide this service. But legitimate companies will typically visit upon your request, or they may use a camera or computer-based estimate services to determine your fees. By law, no moving company can charge you more than 110% of your original estimate before your move is completed; and any extra charges for miscellaneous or packing issues cannot exceed 15% of your original estimate.
- Ask if you will have a “binding” contract, which means no charges can be assessed, and no money can be legally collected until your goods are fully delivered. Make a small deposit to your company of choice on a credit card.
- Verify the address of the broker is a place of business and not a mailbox or virtual office.
- Secure three in-person estimates based on weight, not cubic feet.
- Verify your insurance is “full value replacement insurance.”
- Make sure the contract explains their “household goods dispute settlement” procedures.
- Never sign incomplete contracts or paperwork.
- Re-consider placing important legal papers and other valuable items on the truck or van.
- Never prematurely sign that the move was completed in satisfactory condition. Wait until your goods are fully delivered and in your new home.
- Read your contract with moving brokers or moving companies carefully. If you don’t, you may miss the waiver of liability that is in a true broker’s contract. When this waiver exists, the money you paid to the broker will be hard to retrieve – your credit card company will claim this is a “contract dispute,” meaning, you didn’t read your contract, and the only company you can sue is the moving company itself.
For more guidance, you can find the new moving study on the Better Business Bureau website at https://www.bbb.org/scamstudies.