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Michael De Groote, Deseret News
Workers from United Van Lines unload Jody Phillips' property at a storage unit in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Move Rescue helped Phillips recover her property from a rogue mover in Chicago.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Jody Phillips, a retired Navy commander, had a lot of moves in her career, but nothing prepared her for the problems of relocating from Dandridge, Tenn., to her daughter's home in Eagle Mountain.

She moved to Utah three months ago. Unfortunately all her worldly goods were moved without her knowledge or consent to a storage facility in Chicago.

"It's a nightmare," she says, "people get away with this sort of thing again and again."

Nightmares like Phillips encountered are not very common, but the actions of rogue movers — moving companies with shady practices — were enough to capture the attention of the federal government earlier this summer. President Barack Obama signed a bill in July that will give the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration power to fine those movers when they hold a customer's property hostage.

The FMCSA has responsibility for interstate household goods movers. Last year it received 2,851 consumer complaints about movers, up from 2,440 in 2010. People complained about shipments being held hostage for more money. They complained about overcharges and other deceptive practices. There were damages to goods, lost goods and taking too long to deliver.

Phillips was impressed by Neighbors Moving and Storage's website, which features a photograph of a mover delivering a teddy bear to a child in front of a Neighbors moving van. It also proudly displays a graphic proclaiming Neighbors as "mover of the year." She gave a deposit of about $1,100 and looked forward to her moving day. But the workers and truck that arrived on May 8 were subcontractors in an Enterprise rental truck. After they loaded the truck, they demanded a $1,280 cashiers check up front. Over her objections they pointed to fine print in the contract, she says.

Her choice was simple. Pay the money or the subcontractor's employees would unload the truck in her driveway.

She paid.

The next day the drivers called from Missouri complaining their company didn't give them enough money for gas. She refused to give the subcontractor's employees more money and said that was between them and their company. The subcontractor solved the problem with his employees by sending new drivers who drove the truck to Chicago and, on May 11, unloaded Phillips' possessions into a storage unit.

Phillips said Neighbors Moving and Storage passed the blame onto its subcontractor. The subcontractor said it could do nothing because the employee who put the goods in storage was now in jail and the storage place wouldn't release the items without his signature.

The subcontractor wouldn't respond to questions from the Deseret News about the incident. Neighbors Moving and Storage also did not respond to several requests for comment.

Melissa Sullivan, communications manager for Unigroup, the parent company of both Mayflower Transit and United Van Lines, sees similar problems across the country by rogue movers. "There are a variety of moving scams," she says, "but the most egregious is taking people's property hostage."

The way that scam usually works is people are giving a low-ball estimate without any on-site inspection. The company also asks for a deposit. When it comes time to unload the goods, however, the company then asks for two to three times the original estimate. If the customer doesn't pay, the company keeps the property hostage until the customer does pay. "It isn't terribly common," Sullivan says, "but it is devastating when it does happen."

Phillips' problem wasn't exactly the same as the hostage-taking scam, but it felt like it to her. She says she called everybody she could without much luck. Then she heard about a service Mayflower and United Van Lines created and support called Move Rescue. Move Rescue includes a national network of attorneys who work with people, like Phillips, who fall victim to rogue movers. The service helps the victims recover their property. Mayflower or United Van Lines then delivers the property at no cost.

With Move Rescue's help and assistance from police and the storage unit company, Phillips' property was finally released to her, although she had to fly out to Chicago to do it. What she saw inside the storage unit devastated her. Somebody apparently had broken into the unit. Damaged furniture lay in piles. Boxes were opened and ransacked. Jewelry, coins, computers, a sewing machine, family heirlooms and other items and furniture were missing.

Mayflower carefully loaded Phillips' goods and last week United Van Lines delivered her property, at no cost, to a storage unit in Saratoga Springs.

Phillips stood at the storage place with a clipboard on Wednesday and checked off items on the inventory list as it was unloaded in the cool morning air. She was glad to see the ordeal end but is worried. Insurance will cover most of her losses — except the sentimental loss of family heirlooms. "I have to go through all the boxes to see what they took," she says, "so I am very unsettled."

As five workers unload item after item, Phillips says, "I don't know where I went wrong."

The FMCSA was concerned enough about rogue movers to set up a website, www.protectyourmove.gov, to help movers. In its "Moving Fraud Prevention" checklist on the site, the FMCSA says to check www.protectyourmove.gov to see if a potential mover is registered with FMSCA and if there are complaints against it. It says to avoid movers that do not show U.S. DOT numbers and brokers that do not show Motor Carrier or MC numbers in their advertisements.

Another red flag, according to the FMCSA, is when a company does not provide customers with a copy of "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move." Companies are required by law to provide it when people are moving interstate.

Sullivan warns customers to beware of really low estimates and estimates over the phone or on the Internet. "When moving, get at least three in-home estimates," she says. "And get it in writing."

She says by law, if you pay 110 percent of the written estimate, the mover has to deliver the property. The delivery, however, won't prevent the mover from attempting to collect more legitimate charges.

Sullivan also says to never pay a deposit up front, such as Phillips says Neighbors required. "The movers have all your household goods in a truck," she says, "they don't need a deposit."

Phillips says she has learned her lesson. "I was trying to save money on moving," she says. "I paid for it dearly. I won't make that mistake again."

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