BALTIMORE — Summer is peak moving season.
Movers can help make the transition seamless during a stressful time, or, in the case of a nationwide moving scam, turn the experience into a months-long, or in some cases years-long, nightmare.
Last July, 12 people were charged with conspiring in a racketeering enterprise to defraud customers through their moving companies. According to federal officials, the movers would give low binding estimates, load up the moving trucks, then demand more money. If customers didn't pay, they'd hold their stuff hostage.
Investigators believe the scheme went on for five years and involved more than a dozen different companies in 10 states.
Michael Casari is among the more than 900 people victimized by the companies. He paid Flagship Van Lines more than $4,000 to move his belongings. Months after the move, his items were still missing and the company stopped responding.
"The letters from my dead father. Every single thing we own is in that load," said Casari.
For almost a year, WMAR-2 News Reporter Mallory Sofastaii tracked the companies as they changed the name of their businesses, websites, even names of their salespeople, according to a former employee .
"My name was Tatiana in Unified [Van Lines]," said Sabrina Rivera. "I was Brenda under Flagship [Van Lines], and I was Jasmine under Presidential [Moving]. I was Sabrina for Public [Moving Services]."
Despite accumulating complaints and having their licenses revoked, the schemers carried on by simply filing for new moving licenses with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration [FMCSA] then fabricating reviews and reeling in customers with low rates.
Eric Ancheta, a customer of Presidential Moving, received a binding estimate of $2,700. After the movers loaded the truck, his estimate increased to $6,999.
"They prayed on honest, innocent, and vulnerable people during an extraordinarily stressful event," said Regional Special Agent-in-Charge Thomas J. Ullom with the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General at a July 31, 2018 press conference.
While the system eventually worked, this is an example of how slow it moves.
At the same time of the investigation, many people were being harmed financially, emotionally, and to this day, some have still not been able to track down their things.
Researching reputable movers
Your best protection is to not hire one of these companies in the first place. Easier said than done. Rogue movers will do whatever they can to create the illusion of being a good mover. The first thing to do is to download this booklet on your rights.
Verify their identity:
- Confirm they have an active DOT license through the FMCSA database and review their complaint history.
- Make sure they have insurance and Google the local address on their website
- Check the company’s reviews and ratings on the Better Business Bureau
- See if they’re in the American Moving and Storage Association “ProMover” program .
Seek three in-home written estimates:
- Never do it over the phone. Movers need to see what you have for an accurate assessment. There are binding and nonbinding estimates
- Even with a nonbinding estimate, movers are required by law to deliver your goods for no more than 10 percent above the estimate
- Binding estimates can only be changed if you and the mover agree in writing to convert the binding estimate to a non-binding estimate before your goods are packed and loaded
Know your rights:
- The mover must provide you with a copy of “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move” booklet and a copy of FMCSA’s Ready to Move brochure.
- Also beware if the mover demands cash and large up-front deposit. Use a credit card; payment is due upon delivery. And it's a red flag if the mover uses a rental truck, not a branded vehicle.
For more red flags, click here .
And if you have a Matter for Mallory, she wants to hear from you. Email her using the form below.