Moving “brokers” may entice relocators with low-ball estimates and promise to “handle all the details,” then subcontract the actual move to dicey third-party vendors.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – One of the most exploitative business models in America is booming again, thanks to an exploding real estate market, the tireless audacity of some South Florida entrepreneurs – and the naivety of targets who don’t realize they’re trapped until the moving truck pulls away with everything they own.

South Florida is a hotbed for moving brokers – companies that have no trucks and employ no laborers but have figured out how to lure consumers with professional-looking websites and savvy telephone salespeople.

They hook their prey with lowball estimates and promises to handle all details of the move. Then they farm out the work to third-party haulers who hike the price and drive away, leaving owners angry and frightened and unable to reach those once-friendly brokers by phone, text or email.

It’s been three weeks since movers hired by West Palm Beach-based American Plus Moving and Storage left Lincoln, Nebraska, with Rhonda Faehn’s lifetime of possessions. The broker, who told her the load could arrive as early as Aug. 1, has stopped answering her calls, she says. And the carrier they hired won’t tell her where her belongings are or when they are scheduled to arrive at her new home in Statesboro, Georgia.

The family is making do with folding chairs and a borrowed dining table. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I just feel sick,” she said, choking back tears. “People were kind enough to lend us air mattresses to sleep on and dishes to use. That’s it. We have the clothes on our back. I just want my stuff.”

American Plus did not respond to a voice mail message and an email seeking to discuss Faehn’s complaints, 55 complaints to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and 34 complaints to the Better Business Bureau.

Complaints setting records

Consumers have been lodging complaints about movers at a record-setting pace this year, says Joshua Swyers, managing attorney for Move Rescue, a nonprofit organization formed by the nation’s largest moving companies to help consumers resolve conflicts. The number of requests for help so far this year – 1,053 – should easily exceed 2019’s total of about 1,200 and probably every other year since the organization was founded in 2003, Swyers said.

South Florida holds the distinction of being home to most of the state’s moving brokers, a slice of the overall moving industry that has replaced carriers as the focus of most consumer complaints, Swyers said.

Of 238 Florida-based moving brokers registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, 190 are in Broward, Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties.

So far this year, consumers have filed complaints to the FMCSA against 111 South Florida-based moving brokers, and 58 of them are each the subject of 10 or more complaints, according to data posted on FMCSA’s website.

More than 1,100 complaints about movers have been filed with the Florida Attorney General’s Office so far this year, far exceeding 2020’s total of about 890 and about 730 tallied in 2019. Exact numbers weren’t immediately available because of how they are logged in the state’s system, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Ashley Moody said.

One of those complaints was filed by Faehn, who thought she was being a smart shopper this summer when she sought multiple estimates for her family’s move from Nebraska to Georgia.

Rude surprises

The $9,950 estimate she received from American Plus Moving and Storage was around $3,000 less than the next-lowest quote, so she agreed to use the company and sent a $2,242 deposit. The balance was to have been split into two payments of $3,804 – half would be paid when the movers packed up her old house and the other half would be paid when they arrived at the destination.

Like many moving brokers’ websites, American Plus’s site gives the impression of a full-service operation. “Our movers are specialists in what they do, and they need to meet strict criteria to be considered a worker – or like we like to say, part of the household!” one statement reads. “Before our hands-on training procedure, all laborers have to pass a drug screening and background check.”

How that hands-on training takes place is unclear. A Google search of the address on the company’s website brings up a 743-square-foot residential apartment. And according to the FMCSA, the company owns no trucks.

Faehn sent her husband and sons ahead to their new home in Georgia and stayed behind to supervise the movers.

They showed up a day late, on July 28, she said. They identified themselves not as American Plus Moving and Storage, but as another company that Faehn didn’t know and wasn’t able to research prior to the workers’ arrival.

One worker’s girlfriend came along and hung out inside of the house, playing with her phone, Faehn said. The foreman sent Faehn out to buy Bubble Wrap and boxes. When Faehn objected, saying those supplies were supposed to be part of the move, the foreman got angry and insisted that she go. He became angrier still when Faehn’s neighbor came over to keep an eye on the house while she was gone.

Faehn got nervous and took a few seconds of video footage of the movers from behind the blinds of her second-floor bedroom window.

Loading the truck stretched into two days. When the packing was finally completed at 10:30 p.m. on the second night, the foreman informed her that the load exceeded the estimate by 700 cubic feet and she would have to pay an additional $5,539. He also told her he expected a $1,700 gratuity. “And he said if I didn’t pay it, I’d never see my stuff again,” she said.

At first, he refused to leave, but he finally pulled away after she called the police, Faehn said. She didn’t give him the gratuity.

Not all brokers are dishonest, Swyers said. But for the many who are, marks are easy to find among otherwise educated and cautious consumers. That’s because moving, for most people, is rare. Few of us have any day-to-day reason to learn how to avoid being taken advantage of by movers, Swyers said.

The pattern of despair

Complaints against companies that generate large numbers of them tell similar stories:

  • The experience plays out far differently than the brokers said it would.
  • Unknown companies that consumers had no time to research show up to do the move.
  • They wait until the truck is loaded before telling the consumer they have more items than what’s on the estimate.
  • They demand payment on the spot. Facing deadlines to leave their former homes, consumers usually pay up.
  • Weeks go by without delivery, and neither the broker nor the hauler returns calls from consumers frantic to know where their stuff is being stored and when it will be delivered.
  • When they do show up, they demand even more money for unforeseen expenses.
  • Finally, much of what’s delivered is broken or dirty, revealing it had been tossed with no care into a storage unit. Sometimes boxes have been opened and items taken. The relief the consumer feels upon getting their goods back gives way to disgust and sadness over how they were treated.

Most customers have little option but to wait to be contacted and pay what carriers demand, Swyers said.

That’s because a typical carrier’s bill of lading, which customers sign prior to trucks leaving with their goods, gives companies 21 business days or 30 days to deliver their loads. They also allow companies to add new charges for increased expenses.

Companies that breach delivery deadlines are subject to penalties and possibly even loss of their license by FMSCA. But right now, FMSCA is struggling to keep up with an increase in complaints from customers who have been waiting for months to get their stuff back, Swyers said.

This year’s real estate boom and labor shortage has overwhelmed the ability of the nation’s largest and most reputable moving companies to meet demand, he said. They’re booked up for months in advance. Many consumers’ fallback choice, small “mom and pop” haulers, are also booked up. And that’s forced consumers to settle for the brokers who refuse to stop booking moves and making delivery promises they cannot keep, he said.

“They’re continuing to sign people up and put their stuff in storage knowing they can’t meet their timelines,” he said.

While Swyers says Move Rescue usually succeeds in persuading carriers to reunite consumers with their belongings, state and federal enforcement against companies accused of fraud can stretch out over years.

Cat and mouse game

Many companies try to dodge prosecution by playing a shell game. When complaints pile up at the Better Business Bureau or FMCSA, they change their company names and the identities of officers when registering the new entity with the state. Many once-burned customers have become experts at documenting the lineage of company names and intersecting owners.

But successes are possible. Florida’s attorney general this year announced resolutions of four cases filed in 2018 against four moving brokers based in Broward or Miami-Dade counties: Finest Movers Inc., Ocean Moving & Storage Corp., Moving and Storage Accounting Inc. and U.S. Moving Services.

In all of the cases, owners were ordered to pay a total $2.7 million in restitution to customers, penalties, or both. But in three of the cases, companies were barred only from “providing artificially low quotes” in future endeavors.

Defendants in just one case were barred from future ownership, operation or participation in moving services. Those were owners of Moving Service Accounting and Storage Inc., a Fort Lauderdale-based affiliate of Moving and Storage Accounting Inc.

Currently, Moody’s office has litigation pending against two companies and is investigating at least six others. “However, as those investigations are ongoing, we cannot comment further at this time,” spokeswoman Kylie Mason said by email.

© 2021 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Author: kerrys