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By Amy Baldwin

RISMEDIA, January 19, 2009-(MCT)-Consumers looking for cheap rates from moving companies should beware the pitfalls, advocates say: costs that change before your belongings are delivered, damaged and stolen items-or a threat to keep your stuff until you pay up.

Indeed, complaints against movers are up, even though interstate moving companies have seen business drop in this dismal economy as fewer people relocate for new jobs.

One big warning sign, moving experts and consumer groups say, is too-low estimates. Shady companies will use them to secure a job and then demand more money on delivery day. Some companies will hold a consumer’s goods hostage-an actual industry term-until they pay up.

“These companies are set up online. They look legit (to) people who don’t know anything about moving,” said Justin Wilson of Move Rescue, a consumer-assistance organization.

Charlotte, N.C., newcomer Cati Montgomery says she was scammed by movers she found online to relocate her from Clarksville, Tenn., in mid-December. It was the first time Montgomery, 36, had hired professional movers. She was broke from grad school and desperate to move as cheaply as possible. Time was also a factor. She was to start work Jan. 5 at a technical college writing lab.

When Montgomery showed up to meet movers at her Charlotte apartment on Dec. 15, she said, the truck never came. She called the company and was told it had accidentally shipped her stuff to Iowa and would deliver on Dec. 27. She was also told her stuff weighed more than estimated and that she owed $860 more, nearly double the $911 she was quoted.

The disputed balance was due at delivery, she said she was told. Some time later, she said the company told her she would have to wire the money before she got her stuff.

The movers arrived on Dec. 30 and asked for $100. Montgomery paid it, because she was eager to have her belongings. “They are emotionally manipulating you as well as financially,” she said. “They know they have all your stuff and (that you) probably would do anything to get it back.”

Montgomery learned the company charged $760, the rest of the balance they said she owed, to her mother’s credit card. Also, she said, her grandmother’s rocker, a lamp and a TV remote were gone. Other items, such as her dresser and a glass award from college, were damaged by the movers, she said.

When contacted by the Charlotte Observer newspaper, employees at A Van Lines of Norcross, Ga., hung up and eventually declined comment.

“It’s not an uncommon complaint, unfortunately,” said Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont. “We see these complaints on a regular basis on movers that are in the Carolinas and those moving people into the Carolinas.”

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division received 62 move-related complaints last year and 61 in 2007, up from 45 in 2006. But moves are down-United Van Lines, a big national carrier, saw a 6.5% dip last year, said spokeswoman Jennifer Bonham.

Consumers are increasingly facing “hostage” moves, said Wilson of Move Rescue. But those consumers bear some responsibility. Often they do little to no research on the companies they hire or don’t get multiple bids, which would raise a red flag about a super-low price.

Montgomery got several online bids. A Van Lines was the cheapest at about $900, and a bigger carrier was the highest at $4,000. She didn’t think much of the low bid, figuring a company might offer a good deal in a tight economy. She later learned her estimate was non-binding and that legally she could be charged for extra fees _ such as for a heavier load. Federal regulations allow movers to collect only 10% of the balance at delivery.

Montgomery said she’ll do more research next time. Had she looked at a government website before hiring her mover, she would have seen that A Van Lines had 19 complaints in the last year.

“I never want to move again,” Montgomery said with a sigh and a slight chuckle.

More Information

Before you hire a mover

1. Get multiple bids. Be skeptical of a company offering to do a job for a lot less than competitors. And while online estimates aren’t necessarily bad, get some in-person ones, too. Experts say you’ll get a more reliable estimate. Federal regulations require a moving company to do in-person estimates for all jobs within 50 miles. Chances are that name-brand movers will have an office near you.

2. Check on complaint history. Go to the Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org, or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s site, www.protectyourmove.gov.

3. Know your rights and responsibilities. Two sites that do a great job of laying it all out: www.protectyourmove.gov and www.moverescue.com. By the way, your mover should give you a copy of the federal handbook, “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.” If don’t get one, that’s a red flag.

4. Read and understand your contract before you sign. Are there extra fees for going up or down stairs? How many stairs does the mover count as a flight? What insurance is being offered-60 cents a pound is standard-and are you OK with that or do you want to purchase additional coverage? Is it a binding or non-binding contract? If it’s binding, the price is set. If it’s non-binding, you are responsible for all extra fees that are incurred, and 10% of that balance will be due at delivery.

5. Know what to do if your price jumps. Call the National Conference on Weights and Measures at 402-434-4880 for your local agency. You are entitled to ask a company to reweigh your goods-at no charge-and to be present for that.

© 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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