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Movers Holding Your Stuff Hostage? Not Anymore.

Michael Hitoshi | Digital Vision | Getty Images

Help is on the way for people who think they've been scammed by moving companies, thanks to a new law signed by President Obama this month.

Starting in October, the Transportation Department will have more authority to order moving companies that are illegally holding people's property to return the goods. The department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will also be able to use some of the $10,000-a-day fines to reimburse victims. Beginning in October 2014, new movers will have to pass tests on consumer protection and estimating.

FMCSA received 2,851 complaints about moving companies in 2011, a 17 percent increase over 2010. The agency shut down 75 companies last year.

"It's concerning to us that rogue companies continue to take advantage of consumers who are not fully informed," says FMCSA chief Anne Ferro. "Our top priority is making sure consumers are made whole."

"It's concerning to us that rogue companies continue to take advantage of consumers who are not fully informed... Our top priority is making sure consumers are made whole."" -FMCSA Chief, Anne Ferro

Ferro has just six investigators overseeing 4,400 home moving companies, thousands of complaints, and 2 million interstate moves a year.

The American Moving and Storage Association says consumers need to beware of unlicensed companies that lure potential victims with low prices, phony websites and false credentials, and then hold goods hostage unless victims pay extra.

The law is designed to help people like Frank Culotta, who says he had the contents of his New Jersey home held "hostage" by New Jersey-based Excel Carriers in June. When Culotta arrived at his new Las Vegas home, he says Excel demanded $800 above the original $400 estimate. He says he was told this was for storage fees because he delayed his move by two days while he was hospitalized for respiratory failure.

Excel owner Anthony DelGuidice says Culotta never called to reschedule and that he had to pay to put his employees up in a hotel while trying unsuccessfully to reach Culotta. He says Culotta was only charged an additional $60 storage fee.

Mayflower and United Van Lines work closely with FMCSA on Move Rescue, which helps victims reclaim "hostage" goods. Move Rescue arranged to move Culotta's belongings after he reported Excel to FMCSA, says Move Rescue spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan. FMCSA is reviewing the company.

TIPS FOR HIRING MOVERS

Research your mover's background. Fake websites can look professional.

Make sure your mover is licensed, and check its complaint history on ProtectYourMove.gov, a consumer protection website from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA.

Companies with the ProMover endorsement from the American Moving and Storage Association, or AMSA are listed on their website.

Don't go with the lowest bid. Choose a mover you can trust with your belongings. You pay for what you get, says Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Katherine Hutt. "This isn't necessarily the best time to go with the lowest bidder."

Get an in-home estimate. Scammers offer non-binding estimates over the phone, and raise the price upon delivery.

Movers must offer customers binding in-home estimates, according to the FMCSA. A mover can raise the price of a non-binding estimate by 10% and still demand full payment upon delivery.

AMSA chief Linda Bauer Darr says an in-home estimate is the only way a quality mover can accurately determine costs.

Don't pay a deposit. Many services require a deposit, but a respectable mover won't ask for one.

"The moving company has everything you own. You don't need to pay a deposit," says Mayflower spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan.

•Shop around. Rogue movers find victims by looking out for houses going on the market and Craigslist ads for moving sales.

"Someone who approaches you: That's a red flag," says Hutt, who acknowledges that legitimate movers use this tactic as well.

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