Column: Complaints about movers soar as millions relocate because of the pandemic
Alex Beckers and his wife, Gina, moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore., in November — two of the millions of Americans who have chosen to relocate amid the pandemic.
However, much of the Beckerses’ stuff still hasn’t joined them, including a computer, furniture, sensitive documents and photo albums.
And they say the Northridge moving company that has their possessions — and is seeking thousands of dollars in extra cash — keeps giving them the runaround.
“Having to deal with this has been one of the most stressful and frustrating experiences of my life,” Beckers, 44, told me.
Unfortunately, he and his wife aren’t alone in coping with such a headache.
Mover-related hassles, including some movers holding people’s belongings hostage unless they receive more money, aren’t new. I first wrote about the problem in 2007.
But the danger to consumers has grown more pronounced during the pandemic as millions of Americans have sought to relocate to places they deem safer, or to cut costs amid job losses and the nationwide shift to remote work and schooling.
Roughly 16 million Americans moved from February to July, according to an analysis of change-of-address forms submitted to the U.S. Postal Service.
About 22% of U.S. adults either moved or know someone who did since the start of the pandemic, according to Pew Research Center.
United Van Lines says Idaho was the state many of its customers headed to last year, followed by South Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and Arizona.
California was among the states “experiencing the largest exoduses,” the company said.
All this migration has created a unique opportunity for unlicensed or fly-by-night moving companies, officials say, as well as for firms looking to take advantage of people.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs looked into mover-related complaints at my request. It found that 445 complaints were filed from March to December of last year, more than double the same period a year earlier.
And this could just be the tip of the iceberg.
A spokesman acknowledged that because the Department of Consumer Affairs only started regulating movers in 2018 — the industry was overseen previously by the California Public Utilities Commission — many people may not know where to report problems.
“California consumers need to be very cautious when hiring a moving company,” said Nicholas Oliver, who oversees the department’s Bureau of Household Goods and Services. “Consumers should research the moving companies thoroughly prior to hiring them.”
The American Moving & Storage Assn., an industry group, warned last August that while incidents involving “scam artists” represent only a small fraction of annual moves, “they can create hassle and worry for consumers, sometimes resulting in lost or damaged possessions as well as thousands of dollars in extra fees.”
Beckers, who works for a Culver City video game developer, and his wife, who works for a consulting firm, realized that remote work was an opportunity to trade up, lifestyle-wise.
They’d always liked Portland. So last fall they decided to rent out their house in L.A. and lease a place up north.
“We’re spending less now on rent than we did on our mortgage,” Beckers said. “And now we have three bedrooms instead of two.”
The couple hired a moving broker, Express Moving Consultants, a Florida outfit that says online it can make a long-distance move easy by handling everything — the hiring of movers, the scheduling, the avoiding of any unexpected charges.
Beckers said Express quoted a price of about $4,000 for the move. He agreed to pay the company nearly $1,300 upfront, with the remainder to be paid after delivery. A truck was supposed to arrive for pickup on Oct. 29. It didn’t.
Express told Beckers the truck it hired had broken down. It said a different moving crew would arrive the next day. It didn’t. Express said the driver was in the hospital.
By this time, Beckers and his wife were already in Portland. They arranged for friends to oversee things at the L.A. end.
A truck from Northridge-based Speed Way Movers pulled up at the L.A. house on Nov. 1. Beckers said the crew took a look at the job and immediately said $4,000 wouldn’t cut it.
They demanded about $8,200 — more than double the original estimate.
“At this point,” Beckers told me, “I had my suspicions. But I still wanted to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
He also knew he was in a tough situation. He was in Oregon. His stuff was in L.A. His new SoCal tenants were ready to move in.
Beckers agreed to pay an additional $3,475 upfront, with an understanding that Speed Way Movers would be paid the remainder, in cash, once the delivery was completed.
He said about two-thirds of their belongings arrived in Portland on Nov. 6. The rest is still in a Southern California storage facility because Speed Way told Beckers it’s having trouble finding a truck to complete the job.
Beckers said both Speed Way and Express told him for weeks that everything would be taken care of. Now, he said, neither company is responding to his calls.
Nor mine. I reached out by phone and email to both Express and Speed Way. No one got back to me.
Beckers said he contacted the police but was told nothing could be done because this was “a business dispute.” He contacted his insurer, but it said a claim couldn’t be filed without a police report.
The couple is now considering whether it’s worth the money to hire a lawyer.
A nasty situation all around.
Here are some moving tips from the state Department of Consumer Affairs:
- Research all movers before signing a contract. “When possible, visit the company’s place of business.”
- Verify that the company is licensed by calling (916) 999-2041 or checking its status online at www.bhgs.dca.ca.gov.
- Check the company’s complaint history with the Better Business Bureau.
- Photograph or videotape your belongings before they’re loaded on the truck.
“These companies know how stressful a move is,” Beckers said. “They might try to take advantage of you.”
His main advice for others: Don’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt. “If anything seems fishy,” he told me, “it probably is.”
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