It has been said that, next to divorce and the death of a family member, moving is among the most stressful experiences many people will have in their lifetime.
Dealing with a bad moving company makes matters worse.
“Aside from being extorted for money, they may even damage your goods,” said Ada Vassilovski, vice president of online marketing and product management for Imagitas in Waltham, Mass., which operates MyMove.com, a resource offering advice for stress-free moves.
Some unscrupulous moving companies are notorious for underestimating the weight of items they’ve been hired to transport and even resorting to extreme measures to squeeze a few extra dollars out of their customers — including holding everything a customer owns and cherishes essentially for ransom.
The bad players in the industry have prompted federal lawmakers to offer consumers more protection.
President Barack Obama signed a law last month that will benefit people who think they have been scammed by a moving company. Beginning in October, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, will have the authority to impose a fine of up to $10,000 a day on movers holding people’s items hostage.
In addition, starting in October 2014, owners of new moving companies will have to pass tests on consumer protection and moving cost estimates.
“We are finally seeing recognition that movers holding people’s possessions hostage is a problem,” said Ms. Vassilovski. “I don’t think many people are aware of this being a problem so it’s great this legislation is shining a light on it.”
Paul Oakley, senior vice president for governmental affairs for the American Moving & Storage Association based in Alexandria, Va., said the trade association representing 4,100 members worked closely with members of Congress to draft provisions in the legislation, which he said the organization strongly supports.
“We think [the legislation] strengthens entry requirements to the industry that will help keep rogues out,” Mr. Oakley said. “And we are pleased to see the additional [DOT] authority to return hostaged goods to the owners.
“We think, though, more needs to be done to strengthen enforcement and improve consumer education, and our organization will continue to work with Congress to that end.”
The Better Business Bureau reports that among the 4,790 industries it monitors, moving companies are No. 10 on the list of those receiving the most consumer complaints.
In 2011, the bureau received 1.2 million inquires and complaints against movers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, on the other hand, received 2,851 complaints that year. The federal agency only counts interstate moves, whereas the BBB data includes both interstate and intrastate moves.
Movers used to be regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission, but in an effort to balance the federal budget, Congress eliminated that agency in 1995.
The typical scam involving a moving company usually goes like this: A consumer contacts the moving company for an estimate. The company provides a low-ball quote and the customer signs a contract. The mover loads the customer’s belongings onto a truck and then refuses to unload it or deliver it unless the customer pays a higher fee.
All moving companies doing business in Pennsylvania are licensed through the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. The PUC was not able to provide data on the number of complaints it has received. Interstate movers are federally licensed through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“If you hire a mover to transport your goods across state lines and they hold your personal property hostage, you can appeal to the Department of Transportation and it now has the power to enforce fines,” Ms. Vassilovski said.
“This legislation will educate people that there is a problem,” she said. “But if you are moving you need to do your homework to select a mover that is reputable and not chose one based on price alone.”