Transportation

Clamping Down on Crooked Movers


Clamping Down on Crooked Movers

Photograph by Andersen Ross/Getty Images

One benefit of a good moving company: getting your stuff back. Reana Kovalcik says the $898 estimate she got online from Able Moving ballooned to $2,434 once the company brought her belongings from Chicago to New York, where she moved in 2010 for graduate school. Able held her things until she agreed to pay up, she says. She relented after months of haggling only to find $10,000 worth of property missing from or damaged in a New Jersey storage unit. (Able’s phone numbers have been disconnected.) “The whole thing was devastating,” says Kovalcik.

Furniture-nabbing by movers is on the rise and it’s hard to stop. The 7,000 moving companies in the U.S. are monitored by only 10 federal inspectors. Now the U.S. Department of Transportation, which employs the inspectors, and the Senate Commerce Committee say they’re going to step up monitoring and consumer protection. DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel began trying to clamp down on moving-fraud schemes last year, and has 14 open investigations of companies operating under 108 names with roughly 3,800 supposed victims claiming $1.9 million in total damages. At a Sept. 20 Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the inspector general’s office reported identifying 36 victims with losses totaling roughly $126,000. In one case, an elderly couple quoted $1,340 for a move from Colorado to Nevada had their possessions held hostage, including the wife’s wheelchair, until they forked over $7,400. That mover has been indicted, according to the inspector general. Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic committee chairman from West Virginia, said at the hearing that “extortion” has become commonplace.

The moving industry completes about 800,000 jobs a year, says Linda Bauer Darr, president and CEO of the American Moving & Storage Association, which is lobbying Congress to crack down on predatory movers. For more than a decade, Darr says, fly-by-night companies have been promising low prices online or over the phone, and the government has paid too little attention. “We want to take advantage of the exposure to fix a problem that’s been there for 10 to 15 years,” she says.

Until 1995 more than 170 inspectors at the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission watched over movers. Today movers are regulated by the DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), whose primary mission is to reduce fatalities in truck and bus crashes. The FMCSA performs about 400 audits a year on household movers, according to administrator Anne Ferro. The business is so small relative to broader trucking, Darr says, that limited regulatory resources were shifted elsewhere even as moving scams proliferated over the Internet. In the highway bill passed this year, Congress gave the FMCSA the power to force movers to cough up goods being held hostage but did not increase the budget for inspection or enforcement.

Senate Commerce Committee spokesman Vincent Morris blames House Republicans for the lack of additional enforcement funding. While the DOT plans to launch a website listing defendants in moving-fraud cases who fled court jurisdiction, Darr says the House killed an effort by her group to secure $1 million in funding and DOT support for a national moving-dispute website and hot line. Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chaired by Florida Republican John Mica, declined to comment.

United Van Lines and Mayflower Transit already operate a moving-complaint assistance service. Darr says the industry could expand it but would need government help. Absent greater federal support, many consumers are turning to fellow travelers for help. When Kovalcik, who now works for a nonprofit fighting childhood obesity, trashed her mover on the customer-review website Yelp (YELP), she heard from dozens of people asking for advice on similar problems. “In a cross-country move, you’re trusting someone blindly to take your whole life with them and show up somewhere,” she says. “It’s kind of crazy.”

The bottom line: The Transportation Department is probing complaints of 3,800 people who say they lost belongings worth $1.9 million to movers.

Plungis is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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