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Tips for a smooth moving experience

by Melinda Grismer

Michelle and Chris Graham were building a new home on the Boston outskirts when they hired a local moving company, Monster Movers, Inc., to deliver their possessions into storage. "We should have known there was trouble when [the bill] was inflated from the original estimate," Michelle says. "But they said the prices had just gone up, and to pay because 'we have your stuff now.'"

The Grahams ultimately paid the $200 difference with a personal check, hoping that would be the end of the trouble. Five months later, on the day Monster was to move the stored possessions into their new home, the crew arrived on time and started unloading the first truck. When they were only halfway done, however, the couple received a call from owner William Antonelli, suddenly demanding $1,500 in cash for the move. If they didn't fork it over, Antonelli warned, he would withdraw his men and keep their goods.

This time, the Grahams called the cops. Only upon learning that a police cruiser had pulled into the driveway, Michelle says, did Antonelli allow his crewmen to continue working and agree to send the second truck while she and her husband secured a $1,500 bank check. After the move, they discovered that their foyer and several possessions - including an armoire, executive desk, bookshelves and expensive bedroom furniture - had been damaged. Having paid $400 to Monster for replacement insurance, they promptly submitted a $2,000 claim.

But Antonelli, who returned a call from Angie's List just before press time, says he refused to submit the claim to his carrier because the policy had expired by the time the Grahams moved into their new home. He also said that the first bill exceeded the estimate because of extra packing materials. Otherwise, he doesn't dispute the Grahams' version of events, adding that he asked for $1,500 in cash because he was afraid he wouldn't get paid otherwise. His stance hardly pleases the Grahams, however, who contend that the Monster paperwork they received contained no expiration date. They also say Antonelli was less than honest from the start.

"It has been a nightmare," Michelle says. "I would gladly have paid triple to another company if only we could have avoided all this pain and suffering."

If you think the Grahams' experience is an isolated one, think again. Moving experts say the number of consumer complaints began growing when Congress disbanded the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1995 and handed the responsibility of regulating the industry over to the Department of Transportation (DOT). "The DOT simply didn't have the resources to enforce [regulations]," says Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA), the Alexandria, Va.-based trade association that represents some 3,000 industry members. "That's when rogue movers started popping up like crazy. They realized there were no cops on the beat."

Indeed, the DOT now receives up to 4,000 moving complaints each year - mostly for loss and damage, poor service and overcharging. The Council of Better Business Bureaus reported 9,116 complaints in 2002, a 79 percent jump from the 5,097 received in 1999. Though still strapped for resources, the DOT has begun to take action against rogue movers. In 2003, they joined the FBI and the Florida state attorney general in indicting 16 south Florida moving companies - including 74 owners, operators and employees - on charges of fraud and extortion. In another case, they assessed civil penalties totaling $86,000 against three New York-based movers for violating federal consumer protection regulations.

Also last year, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., introduced legislation aimed at curbing abuses in the industry. In doing so, he noted that state and local authorities frequently avoid interstate moving disputes because various courts have ruled that they have no jurisdiction. His measure, which is now awaiting subcommittee action, would clarify federal law to make it clear that individuals can sue rogue operators and that states can partner with the DOT to enforce regulations, issuing stiff fines and prison sentences of up to two years. That's good news to James Balderrama, who founded a website, www.movingadvocateteam.com, after being victimized in 2001.

"When these [rogue movers] hold your goods hostage until you pay triple the price you agreed upon, it's extortion," says Balderrama, who believes there are as many as 400 such scam movers currently operating. "What we really need is a law [for interstate movers] with criminal penalties." Until that time comes, though, how are homeowners supposed to feel confident that they are hiring a moving com-pany that is cost-effective, reliable and scrupulous? Industry experts, highly-rated moving companies and Angie's List members who learned the hard way suggest steps you can take to protect yourself - and your belongings - from being taken for a ride.

Price isn't everything

To begin with, several sources suggest obtaining in-home written estimates from at least three professional movers. "You shouldn't necessarily pick the lowest bid - especially if it is much lower than the others," Harrison advises. "For instance, if you have two estimates for around $5,000, but the third comes in at $1,800, I'd think really hard before going with that company." In other words: if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

"People need to understand that they are purchasing a service and not a product," explains Jason Sherman of Sherman Moving and Storage in Indianapolis. "It's easy to compare the price of a gallon of milk around town but very difficult to use this principle for comparing moving companies."

For example, he says, just because a local company's hourly rate is the lowest doesn't mean it's the best choice. "The move could take longer, additional fees might be charged or damage claims might be denied," says Sherman. "Any or all of these factors could lead to a higher overall cost." He and others suggest that consumers do their homework before choosing a mover.

"Use someone's referral as a starting point - not an ending point," says Kris Bigalk, an English professor in the Twin Cities area who was disgusted with a moving company recommended to her by a relative. "If I had followed up by checking out Angie's List, I would have found several bad reports on the company I used. They were terribly demeaning to women and made sexist comments. The manager even asked me why I wasn't providing them with meals."

Communicate with the driver

If you can afford it, Harrison recommends letting the movers do both the packing and unloading. At the least, he says, consider packing only non-breakable items, such as clothing and bedding. "That way, the full liability is on the moving company for any damage," he says. "If you pack, the burden of proof of damage shifts to you."

He also suggests that consumers be on hand when movers arrive, have beds stripped and ready to be packed, discuss delivery arrangements and keep in contact with the driver while in transit to your new home. "Make sure the mover knows how to contact you," he says. "If you cannot be reached at destination, the mover may place your shipment in storage to avoid delaying other shipments. This can mean additional charges for storage and handling."

When things go wrong

A late truck could be the first sign of trouble on moving day. "I was told the movers would be with me by noon," says Marilyn Oddo of Chicago. "When I called to check on them at around 1 p.m., the company told me they wouldn't arrive until 3 p.m. When they still hadn't called or shown up by 5 p.m., I called again. They told me that the truck had broken down on the highway, but they were on their way. They finally showed up - but they were loading until 10:30 p.m."

Don Reid of Easy Mover in Charlotte, N.C., says to be on the lookout for other red flags on moving day, including an unmarked, unclean or broken-down truck, employees without uniforms and filthy blankets or packaging materials. "It's important that the company you're dealing with is professional in every way," he says, "including at the office, where they should have a system for tracking moves and backup phone numbers to contact drivers when necessary."

Alicia Schiff, a Chicago-based professional organizer, also suggests taking photos of valuable - or valued - possessions as proof of their condition before the move.

"Don't sign any paperwork the movers hand you after unloading until you're sure there's nothing missing or damaged," she adds. "If you do, and make a later discovery, the mover will most likely point to the signed receipt as proof he's not liable."

Of course, you might not notice missing or damaged items until later. For interstate moves, you have nine months after delivery to file a claim. The mover must acknowledge the claim within 30 days and deny or make an offer within 120 days. If you don't get satisfaction, file a Household Goods Consumer Complaint with the DOT. Or, if you worked with an AMSA certified mover, take your grievance to the association website at www.moving.org. For problems with intrastate and local moves, contact your state attorney general.


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Avoid moving company scams

According to experts, a number of rogue companies advertise exclusively on the Internet and aren't locally or regionally based. "One mistake people make is choosing a mover off the Internet they don't know anything about," says Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA), who warns against relying on over-the-phone and online estimates.

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