Speakers urge limits on moving companies

Billing procedures of some are decried at Annapolis hearing

February 20, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Movers told Patricia Smith the charge would be $2,970 for them to pick up the belongings from her three-bedroom Gaithersburg home, store them for three months and then deliver them to her new place in Frederick.

By the time the movers had her things locked away in their storage facility last fall, they told Smith their estimate was too low and the price had increased to more than $6,700 -- money they said the Montgomery County teacher had to pay if she wanted to get everything back.

"They hold your life," a tearful Smith told a House of Delegates committee yesterday at a hearing on legislation to curb such practices. "The moving day was a disaster."

State officials say there's nothing they can do under Maryland law for Smith or the more than 100 other people who file formal complaints each year about moving companies that give low estimates and then increase charges when they have possession of the furniture.

"This is an area where we are stymied," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "We can't help them with their problems under the consumer protection act."

Movers are even permitted to drive off with people's belongings, and then auction them off to cover unpaid charges -- a legal practice known as a warehouseman's lien or carrier's lien, state officials said.

"The movers put my furniture in the back, closed the door and then said I owed another $600," said Doressa Lucas, a Prince George's County nurse. "I just didn't have it, so they locked up the truck and drove off with my stuff."

Legislation presented yesterday to the House Economic Matters Committee aims to crack down on such movers -- creating a series of basic requirements that, if violated, would permit state prosecution under Maryland's consumer protection and fraud laws.

The bill -- sponsored by Dels. Mary Ann Love of Anne Arundel County and Brian K. McHale of Baltimore, both Democrats -- would require all movers to issue written estimates before scheduling moves.

If movers say their final charges are greater than written estimates, the customers would be required to pay only 110 percent of the original estimated price to ensure that their belongings are moved into their new home. The movers and customers could then negotiate the rest of the higher charges or fight over them through arbitration and lawsuits.

"The movers won't be able to hold the goods hostage to enforce a bill that is more than 110 percent of the original estimate," said John Nethercut, an assistant attorney general. "This will deal with the most egregious practices, where people feel like they have to pay whatever the movers tell them so they can get their things back."

Movers taking people's belongings from one Maryland home to another Maryland home face few regulations, Nethercut said. The main requirement is that they're supposed to recommend that customers consider separate insurance to cover moving.

Federal law regulates moves from one state to another, and the new regulations proposed in the House bill essentially duplicate what's required federally. An identical Senate version -- sponsored by Democrats Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County and George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore -- has not been scheduled for a hearing.

For the most part, companies named in complaints at yesterday's hearing were small ones that handle only local moves. Some operate with little more than newspaper ads and cell phone numbers, renting trucks for each move, state officials said.

The Maryland Motor Truck Association Inc. -- a group that represents many of the larger moving companies -- opposed many provisions in the proposed legislation, saying the extra paperwork would likely drive up the cost of moves.

"The way this bill is written, you don't understand enough about the moving industry," said Kevin Brennan, president of Brennan's Moving and Storage Inc. in Baltimore County. "It will interfere with local or intrastate moves."

But House committee members said they were outraged by the stories they heard. Some suggested the proposed bill doesn't go far enough, questioning why movers don't even need to be registered by the state.

"There's a problem, and I think there ought to be a solution," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and committee chairman. "Our ultimate goal is how to protect the legitimate portion of the industry and clean up the illegitimate portion."

Busch said he would assign several committee members to work with consumer advocates and the moving industry on the bill. "I've always found if you protect the people who are doing it right, they benefit," Busch told the operators of large moving companies opposing the bill. "That's what we're trying to do."

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