Greater federal regulatory protection is in the pipeline for those who move across state lines, thanks to recently proposed rules that come with the blessings of the moving industry.
With more than 9,000 complaints nationwide last year, up from about 7,000 in 2001, moving and storage companies were 11th on the list of companies consumers complained about to the Better Business Bureau.
The understaffed federal regulator proposing the new rules, The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) received an additional 10,000 complaints from customers of moving companies, their brokers and related operations which the administration regulates -- twice the number of complaints since 1996.
Each year, about 1.3 million households use commercial moving firms to move their goods across state lines. Some 4,000 interstate movers are registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The motor carrier safety administration said some customers cited rogue movers in Florida, California and the New York metropolitan area, who held belongings hostage for inflated fees or used unnecessary packing materials and other schemes to pad bills.
Last year, the federal regulator shut down one moving operation in Washington state, worked with a Federal Bureau of Investigations sting in Florida for a federal indictment of scores of moving companies, operators, owners and employees for fraud and extortion; fined seven movers in Florida; fined a Florida broker and two New York carriers; and fined a New Jersey carrier, all for regulatory violations.
The agency can fine companies that break the rules up to $500 per day per violation and put repeat offenders out of business. Individual states typically regulate movers who don't cross state lines.
"We concentrate our enforcement activities on the most egregious operators," said administration spokesman Dave Longo.
With only five employees to investigate and field complaints full-time, the agency asked Congress to finance the payrolls of seven more investigators and proposed the new rules in June.
"With folks knowing there's no cop on the beat, word gets around," said Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association, an industry group that represents 3,200 household goods movers.
"If they can make them a little tougher for these rogue movers to continue to operate, that would be great," he added.
Effective March, 2004, the proposed rules say, in part:
All moving estimates must be provided in writing, including estimates provided over the telephone. Brokers must provide full written disclosure in advance of the move that explains that actual charges may differ from the estimated charges and give reasons why. Movers can demand no more than 100 percent of a binding estimate before delivery or 110 percent of a nonbinding estimate at the time of delivery. Movers must specify the form of payment with the estimate and other required documents. Movers must deliver goods on agreed upon dates. Movers must write an inventory of all items involved in a move, assigning each item an identification number. Carriers and brokers must comply with advertising requirements when using Web sites. The new rules also codify arbitration requirements, allow households to pay for the move with money orders, mandates that movers who agree to accept charge or credit cards must schedule the delivery at a time when the mover's credit department is open to process credit payments or have a vehicle equipped to do so and the mover must determine before preparing the bill of lading, any charges for special delivery requirements including elevators, long carries, etc.
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the U.S. House of Representative's Transportation Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the proposed rules will work, but only with adequate enforcement.
Petri authored a bill this year that would give state and local governments the power to enforce federal laws against interstate movers.
Before you move, FMCSA advises that you:
Obtain from your mover the booklet "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move". Seek referrals from family members, friends, co-workers and others you trust who also have recently experienced a successful move. Obtain estimates from at least three movers, and compare costs and all services the movers promised to provide. Check with the Better Business Bureau for inquiries, complaints and arbitration hearings involving movers you are considering. Determine the mover's responsibilities and liabilities for damages to your belongings. Ask about movers' dispute resolution programs. Be certain the mover is registered with the FMCSA and has a "USDOT" number. Find out how and when pickup and delivery of your household goods will occur. Ask the mover how they can be contacted before, during, and after the move. If necessary, file complaints with the FMCSA.