Although May is National Moving Month, the advice the Better Business Bureau and the American Moving & Storage Association has for consumers applies year-round.
May is "the busiest time of year for Americans changing residences," said Warren King, president of the Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania. It's also a time when "unlicensed movers and dishonest scammers are waiting to take advantage of unwary consumers."
Mr. King said the BBB last year received more than 9,300 complaints nationwide against movers regarding damaged or missing items, sky-high price increases over initial estimates, late deliveries and goods being "held hostage" for additional payment.
"It is important for consumers to take the time to research and find a trustworthy mover," he said. Consumers who start their research with the BBB can save themselves thousands of extra dollars for damaged or lost items.
Mr. King said to help consumers make an educated hiring decision, the bureau provides access to more than 17,000 business reviews on companies that provide moving-related services.
"A con artist with just a truck and a website can claim to be a legitimate mover with unfortunate results for consumers who don't check out a company in advance," said Linda Bauer Darr, president and chief executive officer of the American Moving & Storage Association.
"When it comes to such an important decision, consumers can save themselves a lot of problems by finding a mover who puts customer service and integrity first. For interstate moves, that means an AMSA-certified ProMover," she said.
Ms. Bauer Darr said all interstate moving companies that cross state lines or country borders must be licensed by the federal government and possess an assigned motor carrier number that consumers can verify with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
If consumers are moving within Pennsylvania, a moving company must be licensed by the Public Utility Commission and maintain adequate levels of insurance coverage and charge fees approved by the PUC, she said. All movers must display their PUC number in advertisements.
A list of PUC-certified carriers can be found at www.puc.state.pa.us.
How can consumers find a trustworthy moving company?
Mr. King and Ms. Dauer Barr offer the following advice:
Do your research -- Go to www.bbb.org to search for a company's business review or to find a BBB-accredited mover. Compare and contrast their services with competitors.
Get it in writing -- Get at least three written in-home estimates -- five is better -- because not all online or over-the-phone quotes are accurate. Consumers should verify that the person they speak to works for the mover and isn't a household-goods broker.
The BBB said such brokers generally don't have the authority to provide an estimate on behalf of a specific mover and are not responsible for any loss or damaged goods.
Know your rights -- Consumers can research their rights with the FMCSA (www.fmcsa.dot.gov) for interstate moves or with the PUC for moves within Pennsylvania.
Mr. King said consumers should call the BBB or local law enforcement if a company fails to comply with its promises or threatens to hold their belongings hostage. Ms. Bauer Darr said FMCSA requires interstate movers to offer arbitration to settle disputed claims.
Consider full value protection insurance -- The BBB said buying full (replacement) value protection insurance means any lost or damaged article will be repaired or replaced, or a cash settlement will be made to repair the item or to replace it at its current market value, regardless of age.
An interstate regulation requires the cost of full value protection insurance to be included in the estimate consumers receive. Consumers also should ask their movers for a written explanation of any limitations regarding articles of "extraordinary value."
Red flags -- Mr. King and Ms. Bauer Darr said consumers should insist movers conduct an on-site inspection of their household goods if the move is being charged on weight and mileage. They said the inspection should include opening cabinet doors and taking notes of exactly what the consumers plan to move.
They said reputable movers won't demand cash or a large deposit before moving belongings. Customers generally pay upon delivery. Those who pay in advance have no control over when they will see their possessions again.
And, after examining the fine print for any hidden fees or changes, they said consumers should pay with a credit card to give themselves some protection to challenge any fraudulent activity.
Lawrence Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your name and day, evening and/or cell phone number(s). Due to volume he cannot respond to every email or phone call.