Moving disastersAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 37 million Americans -- some 13 percent of the population -- move each year, and thousands of them end up being victimized by unscrupulous and often unlicensed movers.

To help ensure that the first memories of your new home don't include getting shafted by movers, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA) are offering consumers advice on how to avoid moving scams.

The organizations say consumers can save themselves a lot of grief by heeding some basic rules, the most important ones being to know who you're hiring and to be aware of your rights."Checking a mover's credentials is critical and easy. Last year alone, consumers relied on BBB more than one million times for finding a trustworthy mover," Stephen A. Cox, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, said in a statement. "When making the final choice, go with a BBB Accredited Businesses or, at the very least, choose a business that has a good rating with BBB."

The BBB says it received more than 8,900 complaints about movers in 2010, up five percent from the previous year. The most common complaints included damaged or lost goods, as well as bills that exceeded the original estimate.

In many cases, some highway robbers held the customer's worldly possessions "hostage" until their billing demands, which often ran into the thousands of dollars, were met. For instance, the BBB reported that a consumer hired a Brooklyn, N.Y., moving company via Craigslist for a reasonable $80 an hour. But when A-1-A Jay's Way Moving arrived at the new apartment, they jacked up the total price for the job to $800 -- almost double the original estimate for the five-hour job.

Then the movers refused to unload the truck and threatened to put all the furniture in storage unless their demands were met, in cash, which the hapless consumer had to agree to in order to get their things. After investigating, the BBB discovered that A-1-A Jay's Way Moving lacked the required licensing as a household mover with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). A-1-A Jay's Way Moving, which received an "F" rating from the BBB, failed to respond to the complaint.

"Because anyone with a truck and a website can claim to be a mover, our industry is plagued by con artists who don't adhere to standards for honesty and ethical conduct," AMSA President and CEO Linda Bauer Darr said in a statement. "When it comes to such an important decision, you can prevent a lot of headaches by checking on a company in advance to identify which put customer service and integrity first."

The BBB and AMSA recommend consumers use the following checklist to help locate a trustworthy mover:

  • Research the company thoroughly. While state regulations vary, all interstate movers must be licensed by the federal government and are assigned a motor carrier number you can verify on the FMCSA's website, www.protectyourmove.gov. You should also check the company's rating with the BBB, which maintains more than 17,000 reviews on movers throughout North America. A satisfactory BBB rating is one of seven criteria the AMSA uses to authorize its interstate mover members to display the ProMover logo, the sign of a professional mover that's pledged to abide by the organization's code of ethics.
  • Get at least three written, in-home estimates. No legitimate mover will give you a firm price online or over the phone without setting foot inside your home. Also remember that the lowest estimate is often an unreliable low-ball offer that will cost you more in the end.
  • Know your rights. Research your rights as a consumer with the FMCSA for interstate moves or your own state for local moves. Make sure to contact the BBB or local law enforcement if the moving company fails to honor its promise or threatens to hold your belongings hostage. FMCSA requires interstate movers to offer arbitration to help settle disputed claims.
  • Consider getting "full value protection." Any lost or damaged articles will be repaired or replaced if you invest in full value protection insurance. This insurance also offers cash settlements to repair damaged items or to replace them at current market value, regardless of their age. But the required minimum coverage of 60 cents per pound won't cover the replacement price of all damaged items, such as flat panel TVs.

For more tips and information on choosing a mover and planning your move, visit the AMSA's consumer website and the U.S. Department of Transportation's site. To research a mover or find your nearest Better Business Bureau, visit www.bbb.org.

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