Sounds crazy, but it’s a lot more common than you might think. In fact, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, of the 4,100 consumers who filed moving fraud complaints in 2017, 9% involved “hostage load” situations in which movers hung onto items in an effort to extort more money than their clients had agreed to pay.
How can this happen? To help shed some light on how your belongings can take a frightening detour down a dark path, three people who found themselves at the mercy of their movers recount their stories to realtor.com®. Here’s what they learned, so you can heed these warning signs, and know what to do if this happens to you.
‘We were just moving down the street’
Los Angeles-based Justin Chung was just moving down the street—so he hired a small, local moving company over the phone, providing them with information about the size of items, number of rooms, and presence of stairs.
“Seeing as we were moving a few blocks and had our possessions already packed in boxes, they stated it would only take them three hours, and gave us a quote based on that,” he recalls.
Sounds fine so far, right? Not so fast—literally.
“What was supposed to take three hours turned into four hours, then five,” Chung explains. “As time equaled money, we confronted them, which only irritated the movers. They threatened to stop the job and keep our belongings in the truck. In the end, my family and I realized we had no choice but to accept the situation, as there was no written, binding estimate. We even gave the movers a hand ourselves.”
Chung learned an important lesson from this move.
“Rather than getting quotes online or over the phone, schedule an in-house walk-through and inspection for a more accurate estimate,” Chung advises. “Get everything in writing. Usually, the mover is not the same person who gave you the quote, so it’s important to have on hand a binding moving estimate in case any disagreements ensue.”
‘I felt so angry and helpless’
“If I’d read the contract more closely, I would have noticed that the company name on the letterhead was different from the name in the Craigslist ad,” he says. “That should have been our first red flag.”
The movers moved about half the family’s things into their new home, then stopped and told them they could only do the rest once they were paid in full—and they cited a total that was 180% higher than the agreed-upon sum. When Heidebrecht demanded they honor their agreement, the movers handed him a cellphone to talk to their boss.
Heidebrecht’s wife called the police, but was told there was nothing law enforcement could do.
“He said this kind of thing happens all the time, and because we’d signed a contract, his hands were tied,” he says. “At one point, to pressure us even more, the truck drove off briefly with our stuff and we got another call from the boss telling us to pay up. I have to say I don’t know if there has ever been a time that I’ve felt so angry and helpless.”
Cars can be held captive, too
Housewares aren’t the only items movers abduct.
“In 2005, my husband and I moved from California to Illinois,” says Ali Wenzke, who writes a blog, The Art of Happy Moving. “We hired an auto transport company to ship our Honda Passport, while my husband drove the U-Haul truck across the country. The company assured us that we could track the whereabouts of our car at any time. This only became important when we ran into delivery timing issues. It turned out the ‘car tracking system’ was the driver’s cellphone. He chose not to answer it.”
On the evening of the delivery date, Wenzke received a phone call that the company would not be able to deliver the car to Chicago. Instead, it would be placed in a storage facility until she could come to pick it up … and she’d be charged a daily storage fee.
“When I asked where my car was being held, the company said I would need to wire them additional money to discover its location,” she says. “Fortunately, I worked at a law firm and a lawyer called the auto transport company on my behalf. They disclosed the location of the car without the additional wire transfer, but I still needed to find a ride to the storage facility. Since I didn’t know anyone in Chicago, the lawyer took pity on me and drove me one and a half hours outside of the city to reclaim my car. The first thing I did is give my Honda a big hug.”
Before hiring a mover, check Better Business Bureau for free reports on more than 5 million moving companies nationwide, as well as in Canada and Mexico. The BBB also cautions consumers to keep an eye out for movers who demand cash or a large deposit before the move, or who can’t provide proof of registration, insurance, or an address where they’re based.
Always keep your dearest valuables (such as cash, jewelry, photographs, and important papers) with you, or ship them separately using a shipping service with tracking numbers and insurance.
If you want to save some money, try the “hybrid” approach of renting your own moving truck and hiring movers by the hour to do the loading and unloading. Since you drive the truck, you’re always in possession of your belongings, rendering your move virtually scam-proof.
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