It’s June, prime moving season is in full swing, and so are moving scams. Relocating to a new home is always stressful, but there are steps you can take to avoid falling for a con job that will make it a lot worse (and even more expensive).
According to a Newsweek report from earlier this year, incidences of moving scams doubled between 2015 and 2022, putting the Department of Transportation (DOT) in the hot seat. The government agency has been accused of giving shady moving companies literal “licenses to steal” by renewing their business licenses after they have been accused of fraud. The DOT responded by promising to crack down, but rather than count on that to protect you, it’s better to know what to watch out for yourself.
How moving scams work
The most common moving scam involves a moving broker, rather than the actual moving company (brokers are also licensed by the DOT, but undergo less scrutiny and oversight than moving companies). The moving broker solicits the customer, schedules a move, and then hires a carrier to do the actual work. The broker will give the customers an “estimate” and ask for a deposit that is much lower than legitimate competitors. Once the customer’s possessions are on the truck, the broker will demand an additional exorbitant fee or provide the customer with a new bill that is two or sometimes three times the initial estimate. Effectively, the customer’s belongings are taken hostage until they pay up.
Scammers perpetuate their schemes by practicing what the DOT calls “reincarnation.” In short: A scammer will make up, buy, or ask friends and family to create phony reviews for a business, and purchase a license that puts them on the “trusted list” of companies approved by the DOT. They then attract customers with impossibly low estimates and overcharge them once the job is actually underway. Eventually, real negative reviews start to overtake the phony reviews. At this point, the scammers rename the company and repeat the cycle.
Moving company red flags to watch for
Florida is the state with the most reported moving scams, likely because it only costs $750 to start an LLC with a DOT-approved broker’s license there. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office is fighting back with a list of moving company red flags to watch out for:
- Working a broker instead of directly with a carrier: Many brokers advertise online and confuse consumers by presenting themselves as an actual moving company rather than a third-party broker. Often these brokers improperly require consumers to pay a deposit for a move before a carrier has even accepted the job and before the actual cost of the move has been determined.
- Sight-unseen estimates: If moving companies or brokers provide an estimate without looking at clients’ personal items or requesting a detailed list of what will be moved, the actual cost of the service may increase exorbitantly on moving day.
- Too-speedy estimates: Be wary of someone providing an estimate without considering closets, cabinets, and other storage areas—they may be trying to offer a lower quote they will balloon significantly once the truck is loaded.
- Demands for full payment before the move: Payment for a move is generally required upon delivery of your possessions, not before. If a company demands full payment before the move, it may be a scam.
- Business name changes: Do thorough research on a company before hiring—including tracking down the federally required information packet they must provide to customers upon request. Sham companies may not provide this information because it will reveal that they change their business name regularly after they have been outed.
- Unexpected storage fees: Some companies claim to offer door-to-door moving services when they actually using multiple movers to get your property across the country. Sometimes storage fees may be charged along the way if property must be put in storage. Make sure to ask a moving company if it will personally be handling the move from pick-up to delivery.
- Other unexpected fees: Make sure to ask about any potential fees that may arise before agreeing to pay. Although not always a scam, fees may be added on to moving costs for a variety of reasons. Moving companies could charge extra fees for consumers who live on a second floor or above, or who did not provide their own boxes or moving materials. You should be told about these fees before they are incurred.
- Faulty or unavailable paperwork: Be sure to obtain all the proper paperwork and check for validity. If a company promises insurance, be sure to review the policies.
- They don’t take American Express or Discover: Brokers know when there is a payment dispute, these card providers usually favor customers, so they refuse to take them. Instead, they push for non-refundable deposits via Zelle, Cash App, and bank-to-bank transfers.
How to do your due diligence when choosing a moving company
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to spot these scammers, although no practice is foolproof. The DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) offers a tool allowing you to look up information about the company’s headquarters, registration status, complaint history, and safety records—simply search the company’s name or Passenger Carrier USDOT number on the FMCSA site.
You can also check if the broker or moving company is accredited by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), or simply start your search using a list of BBB accredited companies. (Newsweek also created a list of the moving companies that received the most complaints in 2021 and 2022, so make sure yours isn’t on it.)
Lastly, always get estimates, quotes, and contracts in writing.
Watch out for fake reviews
Being able to spot fake reviews can also help you avoid a scam company before you even give them a call. The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) recommends watching out for the following red flags:
- Reviewers with no prior Reviews: Typically, real reviews come from people with many other previously posted reviews that are visible to anyone online. Fake reviews are often from people who have only posted one online review, or have many purportedly posted reviews, but all of them are private.
- Suspicious timing: Check the dates on the reviews. If many of the reviews were posted within a short period of time, that can be a sign that the testimonials were purchased or created fraudulently.
- Language matters: Fake reviews often contain vague or generic language, while real reviews will be more direct and concrete.
How to report a moving scam
If you find yourself wrapped up in what seems to be a moving scam, report it to the BBB here and to the FMCSA here. You can also file a complaint with the BBB, which will then note your complaint on the business’s record; you can use this as proof of damages when you dispute the charge with your bank.
Find more resources to protect yourself from moving fraud on the FMCSA’s website.