Bad Move

Consumer complaints against moving companies are skyrocketing. In 2002 the Council of Better Business Bureaus fielded more than 9,000 complaints, triple the number six years earlier. And you can’t say the media has ignored this national scandal. Newspapers and TV regularly run horror stories about moving companies that hold property hostage and fraudulently inflate shipping charges.

I’d seen the stories myself and thought, “that could never happen to me.” I view myself as a pretty savvy consumer. I’ll do research before buying anything that costs more than twenty dollars. So you can imagine my surprise when I got swindled by a rogue moving company.

I thought I did everything right. I checked their references. I called the Better Business Bureau. No red flags.

Here’s how the scam works:

I hired a mover to haul my stuff from Washington, DC to Los Angeles for $1,500. The movers came, loaded up my stuff and drove off. When I reached LA, the mover phoned me and said: “You know what? The storage fees I said were included in the price, well… they’re not. So it’ll cost you $5,000, no make that $6,000, to get your stuff back.”

“But I have a contract,” I said. “Surely this is illegal.”

“Yeah, I know. You could sue me. But you’d have to hire a lawyer, file motions, fly back to DC, rack up hotel bills, and testify in court. That could take months. Meanwhile, I got a driver who doesn’t speak English driving around LA with a truck full of your stuff. I sure hope he doesn’t get lost or confused, and unload your irreplaceable belongings on a street corner in East LA. It would be a shame to lose it all.”

I was dealing with a professional extortionist masquerading as a mover and his brazenness shocked me.

Even more amazing was the long list of organizations that could offer me no help. The local police said it was a civil matter. “Pay up, then sort it out in court,” was their advice.

So I went to small claims court. Unfortunately, they don’t have jurisdiction over an out-of-state moving company. (Hint: The moving companies know this.)

The Interstate Commerce Commission? Sorry, Congress abolished it in a wave of deregulation in 1996. According to Linda Morgan, the last chair of the ICC, intervening on behalf of consumers was a “nanny function” that Congress decided that should be terminated.

The obscure Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did accept my complaint about the movers. They don’t do anything with these complaints, but they’re happy to accept them.

Next I tried arbitration through the moving industry’s trade association, The American Moving and Storage Association. All they did was believe the renegade mover’s forged documentation.

Weeks passed while I navigated this bureaucratic labyrinth. The more I learned, the more worried I got. I discovered that my situation was hardly unique and that many victims of moving scams never see their belongings again.

Replacement isn’t possible. Who has an accurate inventory of their belongings anyway? Can you list every book you own? Every CD? Every shirt and shoe? What was going to happen to my love letters, my tax records, the furniture I built by hand? The uncertainty drove me crazy. I couldn’t sleep. I got sick.

Moving cross-country was stressful enough. But to have everything I own held hostage for an escalating ransom was infuriating. I could handle being wiped out by a flood or tornado, but the prospect of losing everything because of deliberate maliciousness filled me with rage. And self-recrimination. These crooks stole everything I own and I held the door for them.

As a last-ditch effort, I sent a barrage of emails detailing my plight to every attorney general, consumer protection group, legislator, and law enforcement agency I could find.

Something must have worked because the next day the movers called to say they would deliver my belongings for only $250 extra.

Bitterly, I accepted their offer and later that day, my stuff arrived. Never before has a man been so happy to be reunited with his tax records. These sharks even had the gall to ask for a tip. Needless to say, I stiffed them.

Now I realize that the references the mover gave me were probably cronies. And Better Business Bureaus can be fooled with frequent corporate name changes.

So how could I have avoided this moving scam? A good place to start is, appropriately enough, also has helpful information. They explain the loopholes that protect rogue movers—things like the Carmack Amendment, which prevents consumers from collecting punitive damages or attorney’s fees in household moving cases, even in cases of outright theft.

Can’t remember any of that? Just type “movers from hell” into any search engine. That’ll get you started. Meanwhile, the scammers roll on, operating with impunity.


This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form as a commentary on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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