Complaints about negligent and unscrupulous interstate moving companies are on the rise, according to industry executives and government officials.
The problem has become especially acute in Florida, officials said, since retirees are considered an easy target.
The increase in complaints has been especially striking because the number of people who move across state lines each year has remained fairly steady. Many in the industry and government suggest a key reason is the demise of the Interstate Commerce Commission three years ago in a fit of government downsizing by Congress and the Clinton administration.
One of the ICC's chief tasks in its waning years was to mediate disputes between consumers and interstate moving firms, a function that apparently helped rein in abuses and gave consumers a partner in resolving grievances.
But with the federal government no longer involved, officials say they see a growing number of dishonest and slipshod movers taking advantage of consumers at one of the most vulnerable and stressful times of their lives.
"No regulations and government indifference have very much harmed consumers and created a lot of bad actors," said Joseph M. Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Assn., which represents about 3,500 moving companies.
This vacuum "leaves the door open for fringe players to do a little bit more shady things than they'd otherwise do and for movers who have lived on the edge to cut this corner," Harrison said. "Complaints will get worse if there's not someplace for consumers to go and get recourse."
The ICC had about 30 employees who dealt with complaints involving shipments of household goods until 1995, when the 108-year-old agency was shut down.
Congress did order licensed interstate movers to submit to arbitration of any loss or damage claims for $1,000 or less. But $1,000 does not cover a lot of furniture damage. For claims over that amount, consumers have to go to court. And movers are not required to arbitrate any allegations of false or deceptive trade practices, such as deliberately low-balling estimates.
Now, said John Grimm, director of the Office of Motor Carrier Information Analysis in the Federal Highway Administration, "there's a void" on the federal level, with no agency overseeing interstate moving companies.