- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

The warm weather of May once again brings the familiar sight of people loading boxes onto trucks en route to a new home. But with the excitement of moving comes the possibility getting stiffed by a moving company for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
The scam often goes like this: A company gives an estimate of, say, $1,000, only to charge $4,000 later. Then it holds furniture and other goods hostage until the company gets its money or auctions the stuff off to the highest bidder. What's worse: seizing furniture is legal in most states because moving companies have a possessory lien on goods once they load them onto trucks.
Stories like these are common in states such as Florida and Arizona, where there are large numbers of elderly people, and the problem is getting worse in the Washington area.
Complaints to the Consumer Protection Division of Maryland's Attorney General's Office increased from 95 to 145 in 2001. So far this year, 33 persons have levied complaints. In Virginia, 148 persons have made official complaints in the past three years. Complaint figures for the District were not available.
Last August, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. reached settlements with five area moving companies all owned by Bryan and Michael Funk, a father-and-son team. The Attorney General's Office collected numerous complaints against Discount Moving and Storage Co., Metro Moving and Storage Co., Metropolitan Moving and Storage Co., Mid-Atlantic Moving and Storage Co. and Nationwide Moving and Storage Co., all owned by the Funks.
The complaints said the companies charged consumers for insurance they never provided, and that the Funks did not have a warehousemen's licenses.
The complaints also said employees of the companies loaded furniture onto trucks, then demanded cash payments. If customers refused to pay, their items were improperly auctioned off, the complaints said.
Bryan and Michael Funk agreed to pay restitution and $20,000 in civil penalties, and change the way they operate. The Attorney General's Office did not release the names of those making complaints.
Moving companies and industry observers acknowledge there is a problem with dishonesty within the moving business.
"We represent about 3,000 moving companies that know how to treat their customers," said Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association. "But there are some crooks out there."
The U.S. Department of Transportation says it receives between 3,000 and 4,000 complaints against moving companies each year.
The General Accounting Office has been particularly critical of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the division of the Department of Transportation that has overseen the interstate moving industry since 1999, for showing little initiative in going after dishonest movers.
Only five of the administration's 760 employees are assigned to moving and storage issues, and efforts to create a complaint database and training efforts are more than a year behind schedule.
Industry insiders and consumer advocates say consumers often don't have solid recourse against shady movers. The agencies that oversee smaller, intrastate moving companies vary from state to state, and it's often not clear which agency collects complaints and has power to make change.
In Virginia, it's the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. In the District, it's the Office of Corporation Counsel. And in Maryland, it's the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office.
"Unfortunately, as much as we try to educate people, they don't always know where to turn," said Becky Bowman, Maryland's assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division.
The Maryland legislature recently passed a bill requiring intrastate movers to deliver all goods and prohibiting them from enforcing a lien. The bill is awaiting approval from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and is expected to be put into effect by October.
Those within the moving industry say there are many preventative measures consumers can take to ensure they aren't cheated. The first, and most important thing to remember, they say, is to do customer homework.
"There are a lot of dishonest movers and there are a lot of honest movers," says Chuck Kuhn, president of JK Moving and Storage, of Sterling, Va. "It's important customers perform due diligence."
Ed Katz, president of Office Moving Systems Inc. and operator of the Web site officemoves.com, suggests talking to several moving companies and asking not only for references, but the names and numbers of their five previous customers.
In addition to checking references and past customers, industry representatives say it's best to make sure moving companies are licensed and insured.
Some even suggest visiting the company's headquarters, meeting employees and checking out the fleet of trucks.
Experts advise getting an estimate from the moving company in writing, and if possible have the company come and view what is to be moved ahead of time. And, don't choose a company based solely on price.
"For some reason, the customer looks at price only, and believes what they see," says Mr. Harrison. "Customers get themselves in binds, and aren't educating themselves properly."
Companies say it is important that customers be honest about what they have to move. All too often, customers will underestimate the amount they need to move, or ask that movers pack items when they originally said they would do it themselves.
If movers arrive to find that they must haul more furniture or do more packing than originally told, they may be forced to charge more than the original estimate.
"The number one issue is clear communication between the customer and the business," says Mr. Kuhn. "There needs to be a clear understanding of what the customer wants."


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