Let’s look at one possible troubling scenario. The movers pick up your items for a local or long-distance trip, head to your new home, and suddenly hand you a bill far higher than your estimated moving costs. Refusing to pay the exorbitant amount—and rightfully so—the rogue mover announces that they plan to hold your belongings hostage until they get the check.
Is this legal? And what can you do about it when it happens? Thankfully, there are very clear stipulations about when a company can and cannot place your items in a storage facility.
Can Movers Hold Your Stuff Hostage? The Quick Answer
Yes, technically a moving company can hold your household goods if you do not pay the contracted amount at delivery. However, the details are far more complicated about when and when it’s not illegal.
Here’s the quickest answer. Federal regulations restrict a company from charging:
- More than 100% of your binding estimate
- More than 110% of your non-binding estimate
In other words, if your full-service move costs $5,000 and your contract stipulates a binding estimate, you cannot be expected to pay more than $5,000 upon delivery. If you received a non-binding estimate, they cannot request more than $5,500 (the total plus 10 percent.)
If you do not pay these amounts by delivery, a company can place your items in storage at your expense, but there is more to the story.
Let’s break down these two types of estimates and what to expect below.
The moving industry requires companies to provide you with a Rights and Responsibilities pamphlet from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Several pages in, you’ll find information about binding and non-binding estimates after you get a quote. Both types of quotes dictate if and when American moving companies can hold your items.
When you receive a written estimate, make note of whether it is binding or non-binding. A binding estimate, by federal law, dictates that you cannot be charged anything higher than the quoted amount on the day of the move. Your price itself, however, can change overall if your moving details change. For example, if:
- You choose to add more items or services to your move
- There are unforeseen circumstances at your locations that increase the bill (stairs, parking fees, etc.)
- “Impracticable operations,” such as the use of special equipment to move items that were not included in the bill (a crane for a piano, for example). These charges can not exceed 15% of the bill.
Here’s the tricky part though. If you are charged for unforeseen items on moving day, the company has 30 days to bill you for the extra amounts in writing. They cannot hold your items if you pay 100 percent of the original estimate on moving day.
Non-binding estimates are a bit easier to come by, since it allows the company a little more flexibility in determining your details. For example, interstate movers consider the actual weight of your items, which can be tricky to determine until the big day. Also, If you want to skip the lengthy in-home estimate, non-binding quotes are easier to get online.
If you have a non-binding estimate with a company, they cannot charge you more than 110% of your estimate on moving day. Any costs for impracticable operations cannot exceed an extra 15% and are charged separately within 30 days after the move.
In other words, as long as you pay 110% of the original estimate on moving day, the company cannot hold your items.
A Common Moving Scam
Whether you’re moving for the first time or are basically a pro by now, it’s not uncommon to get confused by the legal ins and outs of moving contracts. Moving fraud is much easier because of this.
One of the most common scams is when a company offers a very low estimate for a complicated move. This is particularly common for interstate moves since most customers won’t know what number to expect.
On moving day, the scammer hands over the actual bill which is much, much higher than the estimate. Unable to pay, they then claim that they are allowed to hold your items indefinitely. As we noted above, as long as you pay the estimated amount—or 110% in the case of a non-binding quote—this practice is illegal.
What You Can Do to Get Your Items Back
If you find yourself in this scenario, do not pay the exorbitant amount out of fear. Let the company know that you are aware the practice is illegal and that you will be contacting law enforcement and federal agencies immediately.
Make sure you have your estimate, proof of payment in full, the original contract and contact details like the company’s email and phone number.
Write a formal complaint to the moving company so you have this part of the process in writing as well. Here’s what you can do next.
Contact the FMCSA
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a safety and fraud hotline at 1-888-DOT-SAFT. You can also file your complaint online at FMCSA.dot.gov for guidance on where to go next. While the FMCSA cannot argue the dispute for you, they can get you started in the arbitration process with your mover.
In extreme cases, the FMCSA may be able to begin a federal investigation. Not only will this shut the movers down for over a year, but can also cost them a hefty fee.
Contact Local and State Law Enforcement
Depending on where you live and where you’re moving, many state departments of transportation regulate local moving companies. File a complaint against the professional mover with the state even if you resolve the issue.
You can also contact your local law enforcement to report the incident. If the company has not technically broken a law, they may not be able to help, but you can get the report on file.
Fill With the BBB
The Better Business Bureau keeps a public file of complaints against a company. The organization will track the progress of the complaint, even if they cannot legally force the movers to give up your things. It will, however, create a public history of the event so others don’t get caught in the same trap in the future.
Seek Out Legal Help
If the written complaints don’t make the fraudulent company budge, you can reach out for professional legal assistance. Companies like MoveRescue aim to connect customers with lawyers and organizations that can help resolve disputes and call out common fraud in the industry.
How to Avoid Getting Scammed
Fraudulent moving and storage companies know how to pull a fast one on you. When you’re in a rush or not sure of the standard practice of finding a mover, it’s easy to miss the red flags.
Follow a few moving tips when looking for the best movers or storage services below.
Research Your Mover
As you narrow down your search for a great mover, always check the FMCSA database and local moving and storage associations for data about the company. You should be able to find:
- A mover’s US DOT number
- Certification and insurance information
- Whether the company is a broker or a carrier
- Contact information
- Customer experience on customer care, pricing, and the claims process
Opt for a Binding Estimate
Whenever possible, request a binding estimate for your move. This may add more time and labor to the quote process—all of which should be free—but you will lock in a more accurate quote.
Never Sign a Blank Contract
A common red flag occurs when a mover sends over a contract with missing information that they “will fill in later.” Never sign a contract virtually or physically without all the pricing, scheduling, and stipulations completed.
You should also expect your contract in a timely manner before your move, even if you’ve hired the company a week or two before the big day. Signing the contract on the moving day can put you in a tricky position to ask about any issues.
Request at Least Three Estimates
The best way to avoid scams is to speak with at least three providers before choosing the one for you. The process allows you to compare prices, note any inconsistencies in the contracts, or spot issues with general customer service.
Understand Your Payment Schedule
As we noted above, the only time a moving company can legally hold your items is if you do not pay for the services by delivery. You should receive a payment schedule in your contract detailing when and how to pay for your move. It may require:
- A deposit to lock your moving date
- Partial payment upon pick up of your items (more typical with long-distance moves)
- Final payment upon delivery
Your company should also alert you of accepted payment methods so there are no issues on moving day. While my modern companies accept credit cards, others require certified checks, personal checks, or cash. Always be sure to receive a written receipt no matter the payment method.
How can I get my stuff back from a moving company?
If a moving company holds your items illegally, report them immediately to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Carrier Association. You can also file a complaint:
- The company
- Your state’s Department of Transportation
- The Better Business Bureau
- Your local authorities
By notifying these agencies, the federal government may open an inquiry into the moving company and halt their ability to do business.
When do I have to pay movers?
A moving company should indicate when your payments are due when you sign your contract. In most scenarios, 100% of binding estimates and up to 110% of non-binding estimates are due upon delivery of your items at your new home.
If you have extra charges for unexpected services above these limits, payments are typically due within 30 days of delivery, but a company cannot hold your items at this time.
Can a moving company increase the price of my move?
If you sign a binding estimate, a company can only increase your payment when you add services or extra household items to your contract. At this time, they must rewrite your contract—and have you sign it—or switch to a non-binding contract.
On the day of the move, a company cannot increase the payment of your move if there are no changes. In the case of a non-binding one, the company can charge up to 110% of the amount.
Do movers steal your stuff?
Professional movers are not known to steal from customers. Be sure to create a thorough inventory list of boxes and furniture during the free estimate process to track each of your items. If you suspect that something is missing, this list confirms each item handled by the movers.
The idea of a company illegally holding your items may sound scary, but it’s important to know that this is not that common. Luckily, state and federal regulations keep these companies from getting very far. If you do come up against issues, rest assured that you have rights as well as organizations ready to help you get your items back quickly and safely.