If you had to list your biggest fears when moving to a new home, what would they be?
You might be worried about something valuable or sentimental breaking. Or you might worry that a box would get lost along the way. Or that the movers won't show up on time - or perhaps at all.
But the one thing you probably aren't worrying about may be the biggest concern of all: that the moving company you hired is a scam company, and they're holding your stuff hostage until you fork over a wad of cash.
"There are bad guys out there for a number of reasons, just like in any other industry," admits Linda Bauer Darr, president and chief executive of the American Moving and Storage Association.
Bauer Darr says there are two primary scams consumers should watch out for when hiring movers: the hostage goods scam and the advance deposit scheme.
"In a hostage goods situation, somebody has already moved your stuff and quoted you one price. But by the time you get to the destination, they're holding onto the goods and they ask you to pay an inflated price," she explains, adding: "We all know that when someone's charging twice the amount they originally quoted, something's gone afoul."
In a deposit scam, movers ask for a lot of money upfront, and then never show.
Bill Borgman, senior vice president of Graebel Relocation, describes a common hostage goods situation: "Most of the scam artists have a few tractor-trailers and some warehouses, but relatively few.
"They will give a low-ball estimate over the phone. The price will be too good to be true. They'll want the consumer to give a deposit upfront of 25 percent of the total. They'll make the arrangements, pick up your boxes and leave," Borgman says.
"Once they knock on your new front door, they'll ask for a credit card or certified check for twice the amount. When the consumer doesn't have it, they'll drive away with all the goods. The consumer then gets an invoice for a grossly inflated amount, a bill for four or five times what they were originally going to pay."
How can you protect yourself from a moving scam? According to Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Chicago region of the Better Business Bureau (www.bbbonline.org), there are a few big red flags you should watch out for, including:
The moving company has no interest in an on-site inspection of your goods, which is key to giving you an accurate estimate of your total moving cost.
The movers will only accept cash or a large deposit before they move.
The company's Web site has no local address or information about licensing.
The estimate is much lower than any other estimate you receive (which is why it's always good to get three separate moving estimates).
They refuse to put everything, or anything, in writing.
Doing your research before you commit to a mover will help you avoid getting scammed, Bernas says.
"Check with the Better Business Bureau to see whether the company is a BBB-accredited business and if there has been governmental action against them. We let consumers know the number of complaints, the types of complaints, and the patterns of complaints against a company. We'll tell you whether or not the company resolved the complaints," Bernas explained.
When a company applies for BBB accreditation, Bernas said the nonprofit does a background check and research the complaints against the company.
Another good resource is the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, where you can check out your mover online at www.fmcsa.dot.gov.
"The FMCSA has a world of information on their Web site to help consumers," Borgman says, adding that consumers who suspect they have a problem, or who have had their belongings hijacked should call the FMCSA's toll-free hot line (888-368-7238) to file a complaint. The hot line is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Other helpful Web sites include www.protectyourmove.gov; the American Moving and Storage Association's Web site, www.moving.org; and www.movingscam.com, a user-generated site that maintains a "blacklist" of scam moving companies.
As the cliche goes, the best defense is a good offense. If you thoroughly check out your mover before you hire him, you're much less likely to be scammed.
Contact Ilyce Glink through her Web site, www.thinkglink.com, by mail at Real Estate Matters Syndicate, P.O. Box 366, Glencoe, Ill. 60022 or calling her radio show at 800-972-8255 from 11 a.m. to noon Sundays.