7 tips to avoid a moving company scam

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William Pollock didn’t notice the warning signs of a scam when he was looking for a moving company — until it was too late. Even when he paid the entire $4,950 fee upfront, he didn’t flinch.

Now, looking back on his move from Dallas to Philadelphia in October 2009, Pollock sees the various red flags of a scam clearly. He says the due diligence he did when choosing a reputable moving company had given him some peace of mind.

In his nightmare scenario, the original mover held everything hostage in a storage facility and told Pollock he had to pay almost $2,000 more to get his stuff back. He contacted a nonprofit group to help retrieve his belongings, and after a court order, his property was released. After another $7,087 for a second moving company, the move was finally completed.

Pollock’s costly lesson of being scammed by a rogue mover is unfortunately too common among people moving, and it is largely believed to be under-reported, says Melissa Sullivan, communications manager for the moving company Mayflower. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which monitors moving companies, reported 7,325 closed enforcement cases in fiscal year 2010.

Here are seven red flags to avoid so you don’t become a scam statistic.

Don’t pay upfront

Pollock paid the entire fee upfront, but even half is a lot for a company to ask for. Payment should be at delivery. “Generally, reputable companies will not ask for any money upfront,” Sullivan says.

Research the mover

If you’re planning an interstate move, start at ProtectYourMove.gov to see if a mover is licensed for such moves. While not always fail-safe, checking could give you warning of a shady company.

Make sure to also look at reviews of moving companies if you can. It helps to know what others are saying about the movers before you make a decision.

Increasing costs

Moving companies will sometimes keep items in storage until they can get another order to fill a moving van, but you shouldn’t have to pay to put your stuff in storage or pay any other fees not part of the original contract. Federal law allows up to 110 percent of a price estimate to be charged upon delivery, but costs can’t increase without your preapproval, Sullivan says. You can only be billed for extra services you agreed to or requested.

A deeply low quote

Lowball pricing is often used by disreputable movers to lure and scam customers who are then hit with added charges when the truck is loaded or have their belongings held for ransom, says Sullivan. She recommends getting three estimates and says to be wary if one is much lower than the others.

Going with an unknown company

Small companies can do the job if you check them out first. The company should have offices in your area and should be in business for at least 10 years, Sullivan says. Referrals from friends can be helpful, and be wary of companies that only have an online presence.

Get it in writing

A phone estimate won’t work for something as complicated as a move, and federal law for interstate moves requires an in-person estimate, Sullivan says. The distance of the move and the weight of the items being moved are factored into the cost, and an accurate estimate can only be done in person. Pickup and delivery dates should be included in the written estimate.

Know your rights

Before an interstate move is made, federal law requires movers to give customers a copy of the brochure “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move,” which outlines consumers’ rights. It’s a free brochure from the federal government.

Next to death and a new job, moving can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. “Disreputable movers know this is a very emotional time for people,” Sullivan says. It’s a time when moving companies should make it less stressful, not more.