En español | Sixty-year-old Jenifer Henline sleeps on an air mattress in an apartment in northwest Ohio, getting by with a used couch, borrowed TV and kitchen utensils from a dollar store. Three months after movers packed up her belongings for the 2,300-mile trip from Everett, Washington, her possessions haven't shown up.
Henline, who works in canine physical rehabilitation, lived in greater Seattle for 30 years before she boomeranged back to her native Ohio. She says the movers arrived four days late, hauled away her stuff May 3 and promised delivery within two weeks. The next morning she left with her dog for Ohio.
Worried when nothing showed up, Henline kept calling her moving company and the moving broker she hired. A broker is a middleman who arranges moves but does none of the heavy lifting or transport. Henline, for weeks, was given no satisfaction and told to be patient. But at this point she's had it.
'Hostage loads’ increasing
She is not alone. When a person pays to have household goods moved and, in violation of a contract, the items don't arrive, federal regulators call it a “hostage load.” Such cases have spiked in recent years. This year, through July 25, there were 932 hostage load complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), surpassing the 899 complaints in all of 2020, says Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). That's up from 495 hostage load complaints in 2019; 409 in 2018; and 364 in 2017.
“Hostage load” complaints to U.S. Department of Transportation
These complaints, which are on the rise, are made after a moving company does not deliver a customer’s belongings or will not say where the goods are located.
Henline called AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360), and spoke about her situation for this story. Three other consumers who said they have been ripped off, and a man who spoke on behalf of a fourth, also were interviewed for this story. All five used the same mover on moves originating in either Oregon or Washington state. Curiously, while moving brokers were hired first, all five consumers wound up with the same mover, whose firm is registered in Illinois. Federal records show the firm, with one truck in its fleet, had racked up 14 complaints this year through late June for a variety of allegations. Six were for so-called hostage loads.
Here's how hostage load cases typically unfold:
Looking for a good deal, consumers shop online and hire a broker who promises a great price. The broker sends a contract. Henline says she used a credit card to pay the broker $1,856 for his services alone, not for the actual transport. She and the other four people interviewed described being given a two-to-three-day window for pickup, but the mover (or movers) invariably arrived late. Henline says after her movers loaded up the truck, they complained that she had added more belongings than her estimate stipulated. Ultimately, she paid the movers $2,572 in cash; the same amount was due upon delivery, which hasn't happened. So, had delivery occurred, total cost of the move would have been $7,000.
After the delivery window passed, Henline, from Ohio, began calling the broker and the moving company manager — but never received her things. Later she complained to law enforcement in Washington and Illinois and alerted the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the FMCSA.
Finds others on Facebook
Then she discovered a Facebook group with a complaint forum about her moving company. Steve Larson, 67, an IT professional in upstate New York, started the Facebook group after his girlfriend's 30-year-old daughter had a “horrible” experience with the same mover in May on what was to be a move from Portland, Oregon, to Rochester, New York.
The FBI and local police are probing the cases, some of the five consumers said. The FBI had no comment. The moving company manager could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered his office phone said none of the consumers’ property — some slated for delivery as far back as April — was missing. “With the pandemic, you know, everything's been so busy. So have patience,” she said. “I don't have any information for you. We're doing the best that we can. Their things aren't missing."
Lots of red flags
Larson says he had gone to Portland with his girlfriend, who was paying for her daughter's move. When the movers failed to call ahead, or to arrive during the designated time slot, there were frantic calls to the broker because they had not been given the mover's name. Later, at 8 one morning, a mover showed up without a helper, moving pads or any equipment besides a flat-tired dolly. Larson even helped load the truck. The mover wouldn't accept a cashier's check that had been made payable to the broker, so another check had to be obtained from a bank, he says.
Larson says the mover didn't provide an itemized inventory list of the items loaded onto the truck, noting: “The driver said he only had one copy of the bill of lading [a moving contract and receipt for your belongings], so I had to take a picture of it.” And his girlfriend's daughter still is waiting for her belongings, he says.
A few bad actors, many complaints
A 2012 report from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation said a significant number of consumers had complaints about how some moving firms operate. The consumers described a bait-and-switch scheme — a company agrees to move household goods for one price but dramatically increases its charges after possession of a consumer's property. The report also said that in some cases, the moving company will refuse to deliver the goods at the customers’ new homes unless they pay exorbitant extra charges, a practice referred to as holding goods “hostage.”
So where's all the missing stuff?
Henline has no idea where her missing things are. Larson says his girlfriend's daughter, likewise, has no clue where her belongings are. However, another of the consumers interviewed by AARP recently heard from police in Portland, Oregon, where some time ago he had filed a report about his missing possessions. He says police indicated some of his belongings had been found in a storage unit, but that it appeared his valuables were gone. He says he was told that his remaining possessions were about to be auctioned off since rent on the storage unit hadn't been paid.
Another of the consumers told AARP that she was contacted by police in Renton, Washington, where suspected stolen merchandise was recovered from a storage unit. She hopes the cache includes her stuff.
A Portland detective probing the case there could not be reached for comment; Renton police declined to comment.
In Ohio, Henline says she's still waiting for her things, and is planning to submit a claim to her own insurance company. The waiting is taking a toll. Her dog, Devi, she says, “is the only reason I get out of bed in the morning these days."
5 Steps to Select an Interstate Mover — and the Red Flags to Avoid Fraud
1. Get several written estimates based on in-person inspection of your belongings.
2. Ensure the mover is insured and federally registered. Check here for more, including complaints.
3. Keep priorities in mind. If you hire a mover for the lowest price, you may sacrifice other things such as getting your possessions moved safely and on time. Movers are required by law to deliver your goods for no more than 10 percent above the price in a nonbinding estimate.
4. Do your homework. Read Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move, a booklet that your mover is required to give you if you are moving from one state to another.
5. Know the red flags:
A moving company website that doesn't list a local address and registration and insurance information
Calls answered with a generic identification like “Movers” or “Moving company,” rather than a company name
The company gives an estimate by phone or online without an on-site inspection.
- The moving company demands cash or a large deposit before the move.
The movers show up in rental trucks, not company-branded vehicles.
The movers ask you to sign blank or incomplete forms, saying they'll fill them in later.
- The movers demand more money once they have possession of your belongings.
Source: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the Transportation Department
Marie Rohde is a writer who formerly worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her byline also has appeared in Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee magazine.