KSL Investigates rising number of moving scams getting the best of Utahns

Nov 22, 2021, 10:00 PM | Updated: Dec 3, 2021, 9:40 am

SALT LAKE CITY – Before her cross-country move in the summer of 2020, Kim Adams carefully packed away her late father’s toolbelt, the handwritten letters her grandparents exchanged in the 1940’s and the paintings her daughter, an artist, made just for her.

But months after Adams began her new assignment with the airline that transferred her from Salt Lake City to Memphis, she was still waiting for the keepsakes, in addition to her furniture, clothing and other belongings.

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve passed as Adams continually called and left messages with the moving company she’d hired months earlier. She grew more desperate, she said, offering more money in exchange for information so she could retrieve her things.

With the help of the KSL Investigators, Adams learned almost a year later that the truck that left her driveway never crossed the state line. Its contents were shoved in a storage unit in South Salt Lake, only to be auctioned off in April after the moving company owner didn’t pay the bills for storage.

“To him, it’s just money,” an emotional Adams said in a recent interview. “But it’s my whole life.”

She’d found it troubling when the moving crew told her that her things took up more space than planned and more than doubled the price she’d originally been quoted – from about $2,500 to $6,600 – demanding she pay 1/3 of the new total in cash.

But she’d sold her home and needed to turn it over to the new owners. She didn’t have time to find new movers.

‘Hostage’ complaints soar

Adams isn’t alone. A number of Utahns have entrusted their keepsakes and other belongings to crews who ultimately weren’t trustworthy after all.

Most sought out low-cost options online, and mistakenly hired middlemen rather than actual movers. Sometimes, those brokers hire reputable movers. Other times, fraudsters get the job.

When that happens, customers’ possessions arrive weeks or months late, and sometimes only after they agree to pay thousands more than the contract states. Some, like Adams, never see their family heirlooms – or even their kitchen appliances – ever again.

Federal regulators receive thousands of complaints each year about “rogue” movers, as they’re known in the industry. The scammers often provide a low quote without ever setting foot in a person’s home. After packing the truck, they claim the load is overweight or too big, and charge an exorbitant fee.

The key thing is, in the rush of everything else that’s going on around a move, a lot of times consumers are attracted to price,” said Meera Joshi, acting administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). “And so, they go for the lowest price. And that often is a telltale sign that you might be dealing with an unscrupulous mover.”

Fraudsters often ratchet up the price, refusing to unload the truck unless customers pay extra. Joshi’s agency calls this scenario a “hostage” case, and said she’s seen a marked increase in these claims.

While the overall number of moving complaints filed with the FMCSA has dipped since 2018, reports of hostage cases have risen steadily in the last five years and soared during the pandemic. The number climbed from about 500 in 2019 to nearly 900 in 2020, and up again to more than 1,400 this year as of early October, according to data provided by the agency.

Frustration all around

Fraudulent movers are adept at gaming the system, often flying under the radar of federal investigators trying to track them down, Joshi said.

The local moving companies hired by the broker can lose out, too. The paperwork they receive tends to differ from a customer’s actual needs, said Matt Irvine, owner of Smart Move SLC. In the slower winter season, he depends on work from third-party companies.

“The customer thinks they’re getting white-glove service — full pack and load, full delivery, full unload — and we show up with a piece of paper that says it’s a couch and a piano,” Irvine said. “I’ve had customers yelling at my face a foot away because they paid somebody else money and didn’t know that we weren’t that company.”

When Irvine explains what happened, customers tend to come around and ultimately refer others to his company. But it takes time to address the disconnect – usually twice as long as it takes crews to complete the move, he said.

Not every crew is so accommodating. More than 3,000 people got in touch with the FMCSA this year to document their grievances with moving companies. Many lodge several types of complaints about the experience, resulting in more than 27,000 claims ranging from lost or damaged belongings to payment disputes.

Just 31 cases were referred for civil or criminal prosecution against moving scammers over the last 5 years, show semiannual reports to Congress. One company was fined earlier this year, while 13 involved in fraudulent moving schemes were convicted.

Adams discovered the company she used had its license pulled but continued to operate under different names, and had racked up more than 50 claims, she told the KSL investigators.

“It’s criminal. He’s making so much money and just ditching people’s things,” she said.  “You’ve just absolutely lost everything in your life and can’t get it back.”

Losing trust

Holly Damron was helping her father move out of his Las Vegas home and put it up for sale when he headed into an assisted living facility. She searched for a reputable company online but ended up hiring a different business with a similar name by mistake. The furniture was delivered, albeit weeks late, and she had to fork over $1,800 more than she’d agreed to pay before crews would unload it.

She blames herself, she said with a frustrated laugh. But she believes it’s too easy for scammers to take advantage of people who are in a hurry to help an ailing family member get their affairs in order.

“I felt extremely helpless,” she said. “I felt like it was fraud, and my furniture was held hostage by the end.”

Utah regulators, not just the feds, are seeing a spike in complaints about moving companies, said Zach Whitney, spokesman for the Utah Department of Commerce.

Yearly complaints typically range from about four to nine per year. But in 2021, the agency saw a “significant jump” to 19 complaints, Whitney said. He’s also not sure exactly what’s behind the spike but said it makes sense that more issues are taking place as more people decide to leave in the pandemic.

Utah takes action against fraudulent movers, and companies tend to correct behavior when state investigators start asking questions. Usually, the department helps the parties resolve their disputes.

When companies do face citations, fines and orders to halt business, it’s typically because they aren’t responding or cooperating with the probe, Whitney said. While there’s no database of complaints at the state level, companies that have faced legal action can be found on the department’s website.

“Oftentimes, if they’re doing it to one person, they’re doing it to multiple people,” Whitney said.

In Virginia, Thomas and Hannah Christiansen spent months wondering where their things were, sitting in camp chairs from Wal-Mart and using a cooler as a dining table.

The couple had been relieved to find a moving company online that would haul their things from St. George to Richmond, Virginia – where Thomas attends dental school — for less than the cost of renting a truck themselves. But when the driver demanded an additional $2,000 on top of the roughly $3,000 they’d been quoted, the Christiansens became skeptical.

The couple bought new clothes and other items for their 6-month-old son and picked up a second-hand table while they held out hope the truck would arrive.

With the help of the broker they’d hired, the couple tracked their things down to a storage unit in Las Vegas.

Thomas Christiansen, 23, called the experience “a wake-up call.”

“I had a lot of trust in people,” he said. “And this is just ruining that.”

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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KSL Investigates rising number of moving scams getting the best of Utahns