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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/26/2010 7:24:43 PM ET 2010-05-26T23:24:43

Moving is a hassle, even when everything goes right. Hire the wrong mover and it can be a financial and emotional nightmare.

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Sarah Clark of Charlotte, N.C., knows all about that. She contacted a local company and was quoted a specific rate. It would cost $70 an hour to pack her goods and $110 an hour to move them.

The entire job, packing and moving, took just four hours. But Clark was handed a bill for six hours and every hour was listed at $110.

Clark believes she was cheated out of $354. Despite repeated calls and emails to the company, and complaints to the Better Business Bureau and state consumer protection agencies, she could not get her money back.

“They gave me the runaround,” she says. “I feel frustrated and stressed.”

Now that the company has moved out of town, Clark realizes she will never get a refund.

“I have to be grateful they didn’t steal anything or break anything,” she says. “It could have been a lot worse.”

It turns out the company she hired had an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau.

“They were holding themselves out as professional movers, then we find out they’re not licensed,” says Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte.

Clark was one of more than 8,400 people across the country who complained to the BBB about moving companies last year. Most of those complaints dealt with damaged or lost goods and final prices that were much more than the estimate.

It’s not uncommon for rogue movers to demand two or three times the estimated price. That can be thousands of dollars more than expected. Bartholomy tells me the biggest overage he’s ever seen was $7,400 on a $12,000 move. That’s outrageous.

If the customer refuses to pay the added charges, some dishonest movers will hold the goods hostage and refuse to unload the truck. In most cases, the only way to get your things back is to call the cops.

Last August, Jessica (who does not want her last name used) moved from a Seattle suburb to a nearby retirement home. She didn’t have much stuff. The mover she hired wanted $125 up front and $125 when her property was moved into her apartment. There was no signed agreement.

After half the goods had been unloaded – and an antique desk significantly damaged – the mover demanded more money before he would take anything else off the truck. Jessica refused, so he drove off with a good portion of her belongings in the truck.

Jessica filed a complaint with the Seattle Police Department. A few days later she found an unauthorized charge of $600 from the moving company on her credit card account.

The detective working the case tracked down the mover who promised to return the goods, worth a couple of thousand dollars. But he never did and Jessica’s items are still missing.

It turns out the moving company was not licensed as required in Washington State.

May through September is the busy season for moving companies. Shady operators hope to take advantage of people who are in such a rush that they don’t take the time to check them out.

“Don’t be fooled by a slick website or an ad on Craigslist offering you a rock-bottom deal,” warns John Bisney, director of public relations with the American Moving and Storage Association. “It is so important for people to understand that when a company comes to your home and loads all of your worldly possessions into a truck and locks the door, if you haven’t checked them out in advance you’ve lost an awful lot of your leverage.”

Anyone can claim to be a mover. They can use false permit numbers in their ads to look legitimate. The only way to know for sure is to verify that information.

You should get at least three written in-home estimates. The estimator should be willing to answer all of your questions. If the mover seems evasive, cross that company off the list.

Beware of any mover who wants to give you a quote over the phone or by email rather than coming to the house. Experts say it is almost impossible to get an accurate estimate this way.

Know what type of estimate you are signing. Is it binding? If so, that’s a guaranteed price. If you have a non-binding estimate, the mover can charge you up to 10 percent more than the original written estimate.

“Anything outside these rules and something fishy is going on,” Biney says.

Before you pick the company, check them out with the Better Business Bureau and the agency in your state that regulates movers. Verify that they have the proper paperwork to do business there. Ask the company for references and contact them.

The American Moving and Storage Association has a program to prescreen movers. To qualify as a ProMover, a company must have at least a satisfactory rating with the BBB and be properly licensed. Its website is reviewed for proper advertising and its officers cannot have been convicted of a felony associated with the industry.

The bottom line
Don’t base your decision totally on price. Like many other things in life you get what you pay for. This is just too important to cut corners. Before you hire someone get documentation – no verbal promises – get references and make sure they are legal.

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