What To Do if a Moving Company Is Holding Your Stuff Hostage

What To Do if a Moving Company Is Holding Your Stuff Hostage

Moving is stressful. In fact, moving is one of the most stressful experiences people can go through. It can take months, is expensive, and is often fraught with pitfalls. Moving company fraud is one such pitfall, and it can turn an already stressful situation into a nightmare. There are countless moving companies operating across the U.S., and while the vast majority of them are good-natured, some are little more than scammers. These fraudulent companies are known to steal household goods or hold belongings hostage for money, along with other schemes like weight bumping and overcharging. Thankfully, you can spot these fraudulent con artists with proper preparation and due diligence before they haul away your goods. 

While most companies in the moving industry are honest organizations, it doesn’t hurt to prepare yourself and take reasonable precautions. There are many telltale signs of a less than reputable company you can detect early on, along with several proactive measures you can take to avoid some common moving industry scams. 

This guide will go over some of the most common scams in the moving industry, along with steps to avoid these scams, and finally, what to do in the case of a moving company holding your possessions hostage. 

How To Tell if a Moving Company Is Scamming You

While moving company scams are uncommon, they do happen. Often, the homeowner will sign on with a local or long-distance moving company, receive one of the best free quotes of their life, and think they are saving tons of money, only to find out they are paying far more than expected. Even worse, recent studies show that Americans are moving less and less each year. This lack of relocations is bad news for professional movers, as it creates stiff competition and a ripe opportunity for moving scams. Thankfully, there are signs that the company you are working with isn’t reputable, and as long as you carefully vet your movers, you should be able to avoid having your possessions held hostage. 

Warning Signs of Fraudulent Moving Companies

Like all scammers, fraudulent moving companies are a tricky lot. Some are so professional that you can’t help but believe they’re legitimate, while others you can spot a mile away. The trick to ensuring a safe and affordable move is time, patience, and thoroughness. It may be tempting to pick the first, cheapest company you find online, but by taking some time to check their reputations and shop around, you can save yourself far more trouble and money later on. Here are some of the signs of a fraudulent moving company you can use to vet your choices: 

  • Better Business Bureau Rating (BBB): While not an absolute determiner of authenticity, the BBB is the first place you should check in determining a company’s reputation. While B and C ratings are typical, an F rating, lack of accreditation, or in the worst cases, fraudulent reports and warnings on a company’s BBB account are massive red flags. 
  • Not accepting credit cards: Scammers know that a paper trail and receipts are customers’ best tools for proving fraud, so they will do everything to avoid them. One of the biggest red flags for moving companies is their refusal to take credit cards, debit cards, or otherwise insistence on taking cash or direct deposit. 
  • Extraordinary low quotes: The adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. If your quote is noticeably below the national or regional average, that should signify that something’s wrong. 
  • No online footprint: While some small, interstate movers may not have thousands of Google reviews, they should have some form of an online presence. A massive red flag is a lack of a website, Google My Business Account, BBB Account, Yelp Review Page, or any monitorable and reviewable account. 
  • Instant online quotes: If you look at most official moving companies’ websites, they all offer “Free online estimates” or “Rough quotes.” This specific wording is because any reputable moving company will thoroughly inspect your possessions and generate an in-person quote. This official quote and inspection process protects them from fraudulent claims of lost goods or damages while protecting their customers from bad actors. Any company that generates a full, official quote without appraising your possessions is not trustworthy. 
  • Not providing proper documentation: Official moving companies will provide the following documentation either by default or upon request. If they refuse or are unable to provide any of these documents, that is a good sign of incoming moving fraud: 
    • The “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move” documentation: Federal law dictates that moving companies supply a copy of this booklet to their customers. 
    • Inventory and weight estimation: Most reputable moving companies will supply homeowners with an inventory list of what they are hauling and a weight estimation. You will even have to sign this document, of which you will be given a copy.

Scams vs. Common Problems

Part of being a good consumer is identifying when you’re being scammed compared to when a common problem arises. Even the best moving companies can make mistakes, and any reputable company will seek to remedy them. It is important to know when to report a moving company for fraudulent or “scammy” behavior and when to negotiate for a reasonable solution. 

Here are some common industry scams: 

  • Holding items hostage: A moving company cannot hold items past 30 days if the customer has paid for its services in full or up to 110% of the original written statement. We will further discuss this in the “110% Rule” section. 
  • Weight bumping: This is when a moving company assigns an intentionally inaccurate weight to your cargo. 
  • Fraudulent and falsified quotes: A fraudulent company may lure in a customer with an extraordinarily low quote, only to demand payment of a much larger sum at delivery. Some craftier companies will also go out of their way to create a secondary, false quote in an attempt to force payment. 
  • Falsifying fees: There are many different types of service fees that a moving company can rightfully add to a bill. For example, long carry, stair, and elevator fees are all standard. But, if you notice multiple incorrect charges on your bill, this is a clear sign of a scam. 
  • Overcharges: Similar to weight bumping, long-distance movers may attempt to inflate your bill by stating incorrect mileage or weight. While some quotes are nonbinding and can be subject to change, no final bill should exceed 110% of the original quote. 

Here are some common industry mistakes or occurrences that, while unprofessional and unfortunate, do not constitute a scam: 

  • Minor cost increases: An increase in your final bill of lading from your initial written estimate can happen, but it should never exceed 110%. 
  • Small instances of damage: Small chips, scratches, and dents are common even with the most professional moving companies. 
  • Delays and slow service: Moving companies can work with thousands of customers a day and cannot always give prompt responses. Furthermore, during busy seasons, or in the case of unforeseeable circumstances like snowstorms or road closures, shipment deliveries can be delayed. 

What Are Your Rights as a Consumer?

When fraud does occur, knowing your federally mandated rights is essential. These rights, and the rules and regulations that moving companies must adhere to, are outlined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). There are also state-level agencies that enforce laws and regulations on moving companies at both the federal and state level. The specific state agency that handles or litigates these matters vary from state to state but typically falls to the Public Service Division, Transportation Division, Department of Transportation, or Department of Consumer Affairs. The FMCSA has a comprehensive list of each state agency that handles these matters, which can be found here

What is the FMCSA?

The FMCSA is the portion of the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) that handles the enforcement, research, and implementation of laws, regulations, and operating standards for trucking, moving, and storage companies. The FMCSA ensures that transportation, moving, and storage companies follow federal and state laws regarding operations and consumer protections.

The 110% Rule

One of the most critical consumer rights that the FMCSA enforces is the “110% rule.” This rule states that a moving company can only charge you up to 110% of the initial nonbinding estimate. A nonbinding estimate, sometimes referred to as a quote, reasonably and accurately estimates the final bill. This regulation outlines the rules and procedures for creating these estimates, specifically that American moving companies must use weight, services rendered, and company tariff to determine them. The 110% rule also states that companies must deliver goods within 30 days of customers paying 100% of their final bills or up to 110%. Any moving company refusing to deliver your goods after payment of a maximum of 110% of your initial estimate violates FMCSA regulations. Also, it should be noted that companies are allowed to repossess your goods if your bill goes unpaid. Item repossessions most commonly occur with moving companies that offer long-term storage facilities. 

What Are Your Options When a Moving Company Is Holding Your Stuff Hostage?

Let’s say the worst happens, and the moving company you decide to go with is holding your goods hostage after you’ve paid your bill. What’s next? The good news is that you have plenty of options. The bad news is that none of them are particularly pleasant. 

Make Phone Calls and File Reports

The first thing you should do is try and get in contact with the moving company as soon as possible. Contacting the company will allow you to clear up any potential misunderstandings and remove the possibility of this being a mistake. Sometimes errors occur, and you want to enable the moving company to make things right if they are legitimate. Any moving service worth its salt takes claims of lost, mishandled, and especially withheld goods seriously. When contacting moving companies during any dispute, ensure all payment requests are made in writing. When gathering information through initial communications, be sure to ask for: 

  • A copy of the final bill of sale and initial estimate: This allows you to compare the initial estimate received at the beginning of the process to the current version and final invoice, allowing you to spot potential discrepancies. 
  • An inventory list: This will allow you to ensure no additional items were added or removed during transit. 
  • Moving truck weight tickets: A moving company should check its cargo’s weight on the moving day and end of the shipment. By asking for weight tickets, you can ensure that the cargo’s weight is not above the initial weight estimate, and it allows you to check for weight inconsistencies throughout the transit. 

File Complaints and Contact Agencies

If things go poorly and the company is trying to hold your items hostage and refuses to hand over any documentation, your next step is to file several complaints. First, file an official complaint with the company, then follow up with a complaint to your state agency and, if necessary, the FMCSA and law enforcement agencies. These agencies take complaints seriously, but the resulting inquiries and investigations may take time. Some rogue movers crumple under pressure the second complaints are filed, returning your goods in short order, but others will double down and put up a fight, so be prepared. You can contact the FMCSA through its phone number here.

Write Reviews

Another method of applying pressure is utilizing every avenue for consumer advocacy available. Write a detailed review on sites like BBB, Yelp, Google Reviews, and every other location you can find. 

Final Thoughts and Vetting Tips

Moving is difficult. You have to account for a lot when you relocate your entire life to a new location, and unfortunately, scammers and bad faith actors are willing to take advantage of you. In the worst-case scenario, a moving company can try to hold your stuff hostage, potentially demanding thousands of dollars from you. In these situations, you can use the advice in this guide to get your possessions returned and bring attention to the fraudulent company.

For further scam prevention, here are some best practices and vetting tops: 

  • Shop for multiple quotes, checking to ensure they fall within the same reasonable range. 
  • Carefully check every moving company’s credentials and online footprint, including BBB rating and accreditation, Google Reviews, and FMCSA registration. 
  • Make sure you get an accurate, at-home estimate.
  • Get everything in writing, including detailed estimates, service costs, associated fees, estimated weight, and travel time or mileage. 
  • Avoid quotes or estimates that are “too good to be true.”
  • Avoid companies with exceptionally high deposit costs, especially in the off-season. For interstate moves, a standard deposit can be between $50-$100, and for long-distance moves, deposits should not exceed 25% of the estimated total.

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