Movers and shakedowns
Deregulation of moving industry allows people like Donna Humphries to see her estimate triple and her stuff sold
Donna Humphries and her daughter, Amy, watched while United Express movers loaded their belongings into a plain, orange moving truck at Ogden, Utah. Now, three months later, at their mobile home in Sacramento, they’re still waiting for it to arrive.
Humphries is just one of a growing number of consumers who say they’ve been ripped off by moving companies. According to statistics presented by the General Accounting Office in its March 2002 report on the industry, complaints concerning the moving industry increased dramatically from 1996 to 1999. The Department of Transportation had a 107 percentage increase in complaints during that time, while the number of requests for arbitration made to the American Moving and Storage Association was up 750 percent.
“Customers are just not satisfied with the services they’re getting with the moving industry,” said Sheila Adkins, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau. “[Humphries’] problem really isn’t that unique.”
Donna Humphries worked in civil service at the Hill Air Force Base in Utah for two years when a Veterans Administration doctor diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system. Her ailment forced her to retire early and return to Sacramento.
Humphries had to find a moving company to haul her belongings, so she turned to United Van Lines, which had moved her to Utah. Or so she thought. She explained to a receptionist at United Express that because she was in a hurry to move, she decided to go with the express version of United Van Lines.
“She deceived me from the get-go,” Humphries said. “She led me to believe they were affiliated with United Van Lines. The whole company deceived me from that very first phone call.”
SN&R made repeated attempts to get United Express spokespersons to address Humphries’ accusations and questions about its corporate structure, but each time they refused to comment.
Donna voiced her case of consumer confusion to United Van Lines, which has since begun to take up the name issue with its legal department, according to United Van Lines spokesman Carl Walters.
“We’re waiting for a court order for United Express to remove any associations with our company, because of infringement of the name,” said Walters, who added that he shares Humphries’ concern that consumers will confuse United Express with well-known United Van Lines.
Humphries accepted United Express’ original estimate of $3,424, which was based on the square footage of her house and the number of beds and other furniture. Without personally viewing Humphries’ home and furniture, movers could give her only a non-binding estimate of the ultimate cost of the move.
With a non-binding estimate, movers could require her to pay no more than 10 percent over the amount of the estimate at the time of delivery, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s publication titled “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.” Afterward, Humphries would have had 30 days to pay any remaining charges.
Humphries had assumed the verbal estimate was the equivalent of a non-binding estimate, but even a non-binding estimate must be in writing.
“My mom wanted a written estimate but they wouldn’t give us one,” Amy said.
Without an accurate estimate, the movers asked Humphries to sign financial documents stating she would be responsible for all costs. She didn’t realize she was signing a blank contract.
“They were like, ‘Well, you’ve got to sign that because if you don’t sign that first, then we can’t get packing material and we can’t move you,’ ” Amy said.
It was only after she signed the blank paperwork that she read the side note, “West East Van Line Inc. hereby acknowledges that all costs associated with my move were disclosed to me prior to starting my move and a total cost was provided to me.”
Halfway through their packing, the movers told Humphries she had gone over her space limit. The movers charged her twice as much per cubic foot that she went over, jacking up the total cost by more than $6,000.
“No one ever mentioned anything about cubic feet,” Humphries said. “If they had told me $12,000 from the get-go, I would have told them to pack it on down the road.”
Of the fees piled onto Humphries’ original estimate, she is most suspicious about the $2,388 the movers said they spent on packing material, because Humphries and her daughter had already packed half their house.
When the movers ran out of boxes, Humphries said she watched as they packed her belongings, including her silk plants, into a roll of garbage bags that had been lying around the house. But the company later charged Humphries for Saran wrap and bubble wrap.
“There’s no way they could spend that much money on packing material,” she said, “not when they used my garbage bags.”
Once the van was loaded, the movers began filling the pre-signed forms with prices totaling $12,000. Humphries refused to pay the hefty sum, and she hasn’t seen her belongings since.
When customers don’t pay the transportation charges, the mover has the right to refuse to deliver their goods. The mover may place them in storage at the customers’ expense until the charges are paid, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s publication.
After three months, Humphries’ charges have gone up an additional $860 due to storage fees.
“It’s like people are paying movers to rob them,” said James Balderrama, who began the Web site, www.movingadvocateteam.com, when he was scammed by movers. “They’re nothing but organized criminals.”
Humphries said the stress of the moving ordeal worsened her MS symptoms. Despite her declining health, she searched on her own for a way to retrieve her property, but instead she found herself in a web of overlapping business connections.
Although Humphries called United Express to deliver her furniture, the paperwork she signed was from “West East Van line, Inc.” The label on the right corner of the movers’ truck read, “The Right Movers.”
“So it’s actually three companies,” she said, “and they’re trying to hide behind these names.”
The relationship between the companies blurred even further when SN&R asked United Express about the connection between the three companies. The company firmly stated that they had no association with either West East Van Lines or The Right Movers.
“We told [Donna Humphries] that we could not move her so we recommended The Right Movers, a company in California,” said a United Express employee, who refused to give his name or say how he knew of the Humphries move. “We found it straight from the Yellow Pages.”
Humphries scoffed at his response.
“He told you that?” Humphries said. “He never said anything like that.”
Contrary to Humphries’ skepticism, Mike, an employee of West East Van Lines, who refused to give his last name, confirmed United Express’ story and denied any affiliation with United Express. But he added that as of last year West East Van Lines and The Right Movers have become “practically the same company.”
Although employees at both United Express and West East Van Lines stated they were not associated with one another, Humphries’ private investigator, Georgia Williams, found a different answer. Williams searched for United Express’ address, and there she found a warehouse, surrounded by a barbed wire fence in which she saw rows of orange vans, the same ones that took off with Humphries’ belongings, donning the company name, The Right Movers.
With the three different companies involved and the confusion surrounding them, Humphries cannot be certain where the movers took her property. She knows only the whereabouts of one item.
Before the movers drove off, Humphries recalls a heated argument they had on her front lawn. At the end of the exchange of insults, one of the workers handed her a photograph: her grandparents’ framed wedding portrait.
“He wrapped it up in bubble wrap,” Humphries said, “and he said, ‘I know this means a lot to you so I think you’d better take it with you,’ because I think he knew what was going to happen.”
That photograph was the only thing she was able to save. As for the rest, Humphries’ homeowners’ insurance in Utah was going to pay for it, until she found out where it was. When Humphries received a letter from West East Van Lines (spelled “DONNA HUPHRIES” on the form) announcing a “public auction” on her belongings to be held on July 15, her insurance no longer treated her loss of property as a theft.
She had only seven days’ notice. Humphries contacted Williams, whom she figured she could pay to buy back her property.
When Williams called the number on Humphries’ letter to find out the whereabouts of the auction, she met with some resistance.
“The guy on the phone goes ‘how’d you find out about this?’ ” Amy said. “And she said a friend, and he goes what’s your friend’s name, and she made up a name.”
The man informed Williams that she would need an auctioneers’ license to participate in the “private auction,” contrary to the letter’s announcement of a public auction. The moving company has not called Humphries since the date of the auction. She isn’t aware of whether the auction actually occurred or the amount removed from her bill after the sale.
“They can still sue me for the rest,” Humphries said.
Humphries’ worry is similar to that of many consumers who claim to have been scammed by rogue movers. Consumers’ problems have grown with the termination of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1995. Since then, the moving industry has gone virtually unregulated. The ICC transferred the responsibility to protect consumers engaged in interstate moves to the Department of Transportation.
“The Department of Transportation doesn’t have the resources to enforce consumers’ rights,” said Balderrama, who receives 25 to 100 e-mails daily to his Web site from disgruntled consumers. “The only way they can get their cases resolved is in court.”
David Sparkman, spokesman for the American Moving and Storage Association, agrees that the Department of Transportation needs more resources to deal with the overflow of complaints, but he adds that consumers do have other organizations to turn to.
“Police can arrest [movers who don’t follow the law], but local law enforcement agencies don’t seem to realize that,” Sparkman said. “If they demand more than 10 percent extra and are threatening to hold the goods hostage, it’s theft, and in all likelihood, it’s fraud.”
But when movers held her goods hostage, Humphries wasn’t aware the police could protect her rights. She contacted state moving and storage agencies, which all gave her the same answer: they couldn’t help her because her furniture had crossed state lines.
“They pretty much told me I was totally on my own,” Humphries said.
It’s that isolation that caused Balderrama to urge lawmakers to repeal or amend the Carmack Amendment, which gives the DOT the right to govern the liability of carriers for lost or damaged goods. He argues that by repealing the federal law, state agencies could preside over interstate movers.
Sparkman disagrees with Balderrama.
“I think it would be a burden,” he said.
If states were given the authority to regulate interstate movers, he argues, movers would have to deal with the possibility of abiding by 50 versions of interstate transportation law.
While the argument over possible legislation continues, Humphries has accepted that she will never see her possessions again.
“We’ve made our peace with the material things,” Amy said. “It’s the pictures. It’s the items of sentimental value.”
Many of their material needs have been met. When Humphries’ neighbors heard her story, they donated her furniture and support.
“Every day something would be in the driveway,” Humphries said. “I can’t believe the generosity of people.”
Although Humphries has a house full of furniture, she isn’t done yet. She has assumed a goal in life: to make sure rogue movers are stopped.
“We have each other,” she said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. We’re all right, but I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”