WASHINGTON — In early 2011, Joyce Gonzalez was relocating from Detroit to Miami and looking for the cheapest way to move.
She got online and found a great deal: a $1,150 quote from Budget Van Lines. She paid a $450 deposit, but she didn't know Budget Van Lines didn't own a single truck. They were not a mover, but an Internet moving broker.
On the day of her move, movers showed up with a rented Uhaul truck. Later, when the movers arrived at her new home, they demanded cash — $1,016 more than the original estimate.
But Gonzalez didn't have the cash.
This was when, according to a report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Gonzalez realized she was no longer dealing with Budget Van Lines, but a subcontractor called Able Moving. The drivers left with her property and hid it in a storage unit. They would hold it there until she paid.
Gonzalez says Budget Van Lines wouldn't help. They were just the broker. In the end, Able Moving auctioned off all her property, including family photographs. She filed a complaint with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on March 8, 2011.
It's a growing trend. For years, unscrupulous companies have preyed upon consumers by quoting one price and then slapping a huge increase on the price after taking possession of the consumers' property. If the consumers won't pay or can't pay, the mover holds the property hostage until they do — or sells it.
Now, according to U.S. Senate Committee's September 2012 report, there is a new twist. Less reputable moving companies are updating their approach by using the Internet. They use sophisticated techniques to game search engines to get the plumb top results positions when people search online for moving companies.
Internet moving brokers
"More people are going online to start their moves," said a committee spokesperson. "(The moving brokers') scheme is offering these really low rates. When you are in this sort of economy, people are looking for the lowest rate."
Customers are happy with the low rate — until moving day when they realize the company they got the quote from isn't the one doing the moving.
Committee chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller sent a letter on Sept. 25, 2012, to the three top Internet search engine companies and asked for their help. He told Matthew Cutts at Google, Qi Lu at Microsoft Corporation (Bing.com) and Shashi Seth at Yahoo, Inc. about how consumers typed in searches such as "Miami Movers" or "long distance moving Las Vegas" to find reputable moving companies. Instead, these consumers "hired companies that misrepresented their services and caused them serious financial harm."
Google told TechCrunch about changes it made that should help.
"We're always looking for ways to make it harder for scammers to trick consumers," a Google spokesperson wrote, "so we appreciate the specifics the Committee provided. Senator Rockefeller's concerns point out how important it is that search engines continue to have the ability to constantly and quickly improve our results for our users."
One primary way consumers are mistaken is by contacting companies that are not carriers (companies that have their own fleet of trucks) but brokers (companies that subcontract moving to multiple small moving companies). Even though these brokers have no trucks, they often use names and logos that make it sound like they are a reputable company.
At a committee hearing on Sept. 20, the president and chief legal counsel of Budget Van Lines, Jason Romrell, defended his company's broker model. He cast his company as a service that brings customers and qualified motor carriers together — saving both money and hassle.
"The services we provide create a win-win situation for both consumers and household goods motor carriers," he said.
Romrell also said because his company is a broker and not the carrier, it is limited under federal regulations as to how much control it can have over the operation of the motor carriers it brokers the jobs to.
Help for consumers
At the committee hearing on Sept. 20, Anne S. Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said consumers often hire companies with the lowest estimate "instead of confirming that the company is safe and has a good customer service record."
The FMCSA has a website, ProtectYourMove.gov, which allows people to search by carrier or broker name and Motor Carrier and Department of Transportation license numbers. The listings show complaints and whether the company is a carrier or a broker. The FMCSA website also has a fraud prevention checklist to help people avoid the problems the Senate committee is investigating.
Ferro said in the committee hearing that the new surface transportation reauthorization law, "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century," gave the agency new tools to combat problems of hostage goods such as Gonzalez experienced when she moved to Florida.
Starting in October 2012, Ferro said, "FMCSA (has) the authority to require the return of hostage goods loads to consumers and may also direct a portion of a civil penalty to reimburse consumers for their financial losses."
For Gonzalez, it may be too late, and there are still no criminal penalties. But the committee investigation shows some movement in that direction.