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Moving can be stressful, and the last thing you want to worry about during your move is whether your belongings will arrive, and if so, in what condition.

An estimated 1.4 to 1.6 million household moves take place each year. Most go smoothly but a significant number don't. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation receives about 3,000 to 4,000 complaints each year from consumers who contend moving companies victimized them.

Here's what usually happens. Someone hires a moving company through the Internet because of a low estimate. Once the truck shows up and loads everything, the estimate is increased to two, three or four times the original bid. The consumer is then told that unless the new bill is paid, their possessions will be sold at auction.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says in other instances moving companies will fail to deliver or deliver damaged goods, then refuse to compensate them for loss and damages claimed. Some may not even be legitimate carriers at all, but will prey on those who can least afford it - the elderly and uninformed.

The horror stories are chronicled regularly in newspapers across the country.

In a May 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article several moving horror stories are profiled, including:

  • Jon and Tammy Marsh, who moved from Sacramento, California, to New Berlin, and paid $8,000 more than the moving company had originally bid. Every piece of furniture they owned was damaged in the move, including priceless family heirlooms.
  • Larry and Elaine Youngerman, who moved to La Crosse from Holland, Michigan, using a Plantation, Florida, company that wanted more than $15,000 ¾ instead of the $3,300 originally bid ¾ before delivering. Only legal intervention was able to get the company to release the belongings, after the Youngermans paid $6,500.
  • Tim and Angela Alsum, who moved from Sioux Center, Iowa, to Escondido, California, are suing Advanced Moving Systems, of Sunrise, Florida (the same company that moved the Marshes). The Alsums say Advanced forced them to pay four times their estimate.
  • Bill Pokorsky, who moved from Brown Deer to Denver, received a bid from a Hollywood, Florida, company that was originally $1,200. The bid increased to more than $2,100, once Pokorsky's belongings were on the truck, he said.
  • Ellen Goerke, who moved from New Berlin to Naples, Florida, and had to pay nearly $5,000 to a Hollywood, Florida, company whose original estimate was $1,200.

    In addition, television news shows like Dateline NBC are profiling this growing problem.

    Among Dateline's stories was that of Tyrone and Regina Kelley, who moved from Massachusetts to Las Vegas, Nevada. The Kelleys had found New York-based U.S. Movers on the Internet.

    Their original estimate, based on weight, was $1,482. The movers arrived in Las Vegas a week late, claiming the shipment weighed more than the original estimate, therefore wanting $3,600 or they were not going to unload the truck.

    U.S. Movers claimed they Kelley's belongings weighed 4,650 pounds, but ultimately the shipment weighed 3,460 pounds.

    U.S. Movers had been trying to charge the Kelleys for 1,000 pounds they didn't have.

    So what can you do to avoid falling victim to a scam like this?

    The American Moving and Storage Association, the national trade association representing the nation's moving and storage companies, has a Certified Mover Program that identifies elite members, and a web-based mover referral service. Both tools are located on the AMSA web site.

    Their tips include:

  • Make moving arrangements in advance.
  • Check all companies with your local Better Business Bureau.
  • Get at least three bids.
  • Inform each company of the destination and timing of your move.
  • Ask about the types of services they offer, and rates and charges that will apply.
  • Ask what their liability is for your belongings and what claims protection you will have.
  • Ask how pickup and delivery will work.
  • Ask them to explain their estimates in detail and give you a copy.
  • If you get a non-binding estimates, actual charges may exceed the estimate, so be sure you should have enough cash or a certified check to pay the estimated cost of your move plus 10 percent more at time of delivery.
  • Specify pickup and delivery dates in the order for service.
  • The Bill of Lading is your contract with the mover, so read it carefully. If you have any questions ask your mover.
  • You have the right to be present each time your shipment is weighed, and you may request a reweigh of your shipment.
  • Unresolved claims for loss or damage may be submitted to arbitration.
  • If you are moving interstate, moving companies should give you a copy of a consumer booklet entitled Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move and information regarding the mover's participation in a Dispute Settlement Program.

    After you've gathered this information, compare bids to see which mover best suits your needs and budget.

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