This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

Last month we moved a house full of furniture in the least frugal way possible. We hired movers. But, we felt that we were justified in the expense due to a variety of reasons. First, we’re getting older and no longer have friends or family members willing to sacrifice their Saturday for the promise of pizza and beer. Second, I’ve had chronic back issues throughout my 20s and 30s, so I can no longer move heavy stuff. So that just leaves my husband. And although he’s pretty amazing, he is currently unable to move a house full of furniture with his bare hands and a Toyota Prius. But, I digress.

Once we chose to hire movers, we immediately thought of the moving company we used six years ago. They were reasonably priced at the time, after all, and they got the job done without incident. So I called them up and was quoted a rate of $159 per hour for four movers. In addition to that charge, I would also be responsible for an additional hour for transportation and a 10 percent fuel surcharge on my total. Fine.

I called around to get a few more quotes only to find that they were all about the same, give or take a few bucks. Ultimately, we decided to go with the movers we had prior experience with and paid a $100 deposit to hold our spot. During that same phone call, I went out of my way to confirm the charges once again. $159 per hour for four movers. An extra hour for transportation. Ten percent fuel surcharge. Uh-huh.

Moving Day

The day of our move arrived and we were up and at ‘em early. And since we had already moved most of our possessions and clothing, we just had the furniture left. Unfortunately, the movers didn’t arrive at our house at 8:30 as promised. And by the time 9:00 rolled around, I was getting impatient. So I called to see what was going on.

“Your movers will be there soon, Mrs. Johnson. But they’ll only be two and it will be $129 per hour,” said the man on the phone.

So we kept waiting.

Three movers did finally show up at around 10:00 a.m. And after informing me that three movers would cost $139 per hour, they got started right away. The actual movers were fantastic, working quickly and efficiently as they loaded our house full of furniture. When it came time to pay, I quickly glanced over the bill and saw that I was charged for four hours of moving, one hour of transportation and a 10 percent fuel surcharge. The bill wasn’t itemized, however, and I only scanned it quickly to make sure that I wasn’t being charged for any additional items. And since I had originally budgeted $1,000 for movers, I wasn’t shocked at all to see a grand total of $974.98.

Epic Fail No. 1

My house was a wreck and my furniture and belongings were stacked here and there, all over the place. What I should’ve done was break out a calculator (or my cell phone) and added up the bill myself. But, I didn’t. In a frantic and exhausted haze, I told them to charge the balance on the card I used to pay the deposit and I went about my business. But once I took a closer look at our bill later that night, I discovered that the numbers didn’t add up.

Our move took a little less than four hours, which means that I should’ve been charged for five hours plus the fuel surcharge. So, $764.50. After dissecting the bills for hours, I couldn’t come up with any explanation for the $974.98 they came up with. So the following Monday I called the moving company to ask for a refund. Unfortunately, they weren’t having it.

Mrs. Johnson, your bill is correct. You’re just adding it wrong,” they kept telling me. As our conversation continued, the customer service rep became strangely hostile. When I asked for a manager, he hung up on me.

I called back a few times and finally convinced them that I had been overcharged. However, they only agreed to refund about $100 and said they were keeping the rest as a “packing materials charge” that they had failed to mention beforehand.

“But, don’t you have to list charges like that on my bill?” I asked.

“Beeeeeeeeppppp.” That is the sound of them hanging up.

Epic Fail No. 2

And that’s when it happened. I hopped on the computer to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. But first I did a quick Google search to see what, if anything, I could dig up. What I found was shocking.

Five seconds of searching led me to a variety of online review sites, all with terrifying reviews. Customers were overcharged. They were lied to. Their possessions were held hostage. And when they called for a resolution, they were yelled at and hung up on. It all sounded eerily familiar.

Once I made my way to the BBB website, I also discovered that they had lost accreditation altogether. Unlike the A or A+ many businesses have, this particular moving company was sitting pretty with a D+ (the BBB rates businesses on a scale of A+ to F). It was ugly.

Obviously, I should’ve researched the company ahead of time, even though I had used them in the past. It had been six years, after all, and a lot can happen during that time.

Failing to use the free resources available on the Internet was my first mistake, according to Manuella Irwin, a relocation specialist who writes for MyMovingReviews.com.

I reached out to Manuella and her site to see what I could learn and to uncover any potential advice for readers who may find themselves in a similar position. According to Manuella, the moving industry is rife with all kinds of scams. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Giving a low-ball quote: Dishonest movers often give customers a low-ball quote in order to book business. Then, once the move is already underway, they’ll hit customers with additional charges that weren’t disclosed ahead of time. “Extra” charges added after the fact can include charges for stairs, the removal of appliances, waiting times, bulky items, multiple stops, and packing materials.
  • Giving estimates over the phone: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires interstate movers to execute a survey before issuing an estimate. By federal law, if your home is located in a 50-mile radius from mover’s place of business, the moving company is required to base your estimate on a physical survey of your household items, unless the consumer waives the requirement in writing.
  • Bait and switch: One of the most common “bait and switch” moving scams involves movers refusing to honor a quote after the truck is already loaded. In those cases, it’s common for movers to cite the weight of a customer’s items as the culprit.
  • Possessions held hostage: When customers are hit with hidden charges, they’re often outraged. Since overcharged customers may be unwilling to pony up the extra dough, movers have been known to take possessions hostage until they’re paid.

Moving Scams on the Rise

Although that last one might sound outrageous, it’s actually much more commonplace than people realize. In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration just shut down five moving companies in one week for holding customer shipments hostage.

And according to the BBB, moving scams are still a huge problem, despite the many consumer protections that have been put in place over the last decade. According to a recent press release, the BBB received over 1.4 million moving-related inquiries and more than 9,300 complaints against movers in 2012. That’s a lot.

But, even though the moving industry may be prone to scams, there are still plenty of ways to protect yourself. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s ProtectYourMove.gov is a treasure trove of information for those who want to steer clear of predatory movers. The site is full of advice for consumers, including these simple steps for those searching for a reputable company for their move:

  • Check out the BBB profile of movers you are considering as well as their complaint history at ProtectYourMove.gov.
  • Ask for recommendations from family and friends.
  • Get written estimates from at least three movers so that you’re able to compare all costs and fees.
  • If you’re moving to a new state, check to see whether the interstate mover is registered with FMCSA, and has a USDOT number.
  • Ask if your mover has a dispute settlement program.
  • Find out what types of insurance are available and take special care to adequately insure your belongings, if necessary.

As is usually the case, a little research done beforehand can go a long way. If I had spent even five minutes investigating the company we chose, I would’ve run for the hills. Lesson learned. I’ll also check and double-check any bill that I’m presented with in the future, even if I’m exhausted or in a hurry. Some companies are institutionally dishonest, but sometimes people are just bad at math. I’ve learned that you should always double-check, even if you think that the intentions of people are good.

Thanks to the Internet, consumer reviews are all over the place. With the click of a mouse, you can find out the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as whom to trust and whom to avoid at all costs. And there’s no reason not to check. I’ve learned that and I hope that this story serves as a cautionary tale of “what not to do” when you’re getting ready to hire out a big job.

Do you read company reviews ahead of time? Have you ever wished you did after the fact?

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