US Moving Industry Loses Its Regulator: Take Care

AT her son's request, Mary Brown sold the home she had lived in for more than 30 years in Virginia Beach, Va., and moved 200 miles to be closer to her children. The moving company made the event traumatic.

When the movers delivered her furniture, Ms. Brown says, they unloaded nearly all of it into her backyard and covered it, never moving it into her home. Some items had been damaged and several were even missing. She paid the company $1,750 for the job. Then the firm tried to charge her $500 more than it originally estimated. ''Shortly after, the bill collectors were calling up here until it just drove me wild,'' Brown says. The phone calls finally stopped when she threatened to get a lawyer.

Unfortunately, cases like Brown's are not uncommon among the 40 million Americans who move each year. And now consumers are without a traditional industry watchdog.

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which among its tasks regulated interstate moves, was eliminated by Congress early this year. That means consumers lack a resource that long helped them check whether a moving company was licensed. The ICC also tried to resolve consumer complaints.

In recent years, however, the commission wasn't that effective, critics say. In 1994, it took enforcement action against nine carriers. One case resulted in criminal prosecution and the rest were resolved by civil court orders or settlements. Each case represented numerous consumer complaints about the carrier.

Coming: mandatory arbitration

As it shuttered the ICC, Congress moved to usher in mandatory arbitration as the means of resolving consumer complaints against moving companies - a step hailed generally by both sides.

But the arbitration program is not in place and isn't expected to begin until after the summer of 1997. In the interim, of the 2,700 members of the American Movers Conference (AMC), a trade group in Alexandria, Va., 60 have agreed to submit claims to outside arbitrators.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department has absorbed many of the ICC's duties. Some industry experts fear it will be even less responsive to consumers. ''The intent is that there will be no informal resolution of these types of complaints by the US government,'' says Larry Herzig, an industry analyst with the Transportation Department. ''The thought is that this is something that the US government doesn't have any business being involved with.'' Those with complaints, he says, now have to file suit in court or small claims actions.

According to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, moving companies rank 13th among 327 industries nationwide in the number of complaints filed. The council, which already operates some consumer-arbitration programs, says it expects to become active in resolving moving-industry cases.

Advice to people moving

The council suggests that people planning a move get written estimates from at least three moving companies. Both the council and the AMC publish consumer booklets on moving. A frequent complaint is that movers charge more on delivery than they originally estimated. Many consumers don't realize that if they agree to an ''estimated'' price as opposed to a ''binding'' estimate, a mover can legally charge as much as 10 percent more than the price quoted.

''Normally, where there's a difference in the quoted price versus the final price, it relates to the weight of the shipment,'' says Gary Cunningham, General Counsel for St. Louis-based Inigroup Inc., parent company of movers Mayflower and United Van Lines. ''And those are matters where the consumer is entitled to weight tickets, which justifies the weight of the shipment.''

Some moving companies offer customers the option to purchase insurance directly from them. ''Before you turn it down,'' says Carolyn Gorman of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington, ''you ought to find out exactly what you have in your own policy.''

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