Sofas Held Hostage!

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We Americans are a footloose people, with fully 16% of us uprooting each year. About a third of those moves take place while school is out, and Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association, predicts this summer will be busier than usual as unemployed Americans relocate in search of new jobs.

Unfortunately, there will be not only more moves but more scams by moving companies as well. Complaints against the moving industry logged by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), an arm of the Department of Transportation, more than doubled between 2000 and 2002. A growing number of clients gripe about "hostage loads"--goods a mover won't release until he is paid more than he agreed to charge in his estimate. Here's how to protect yourself from this and other potholes on your road to a new home:

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GET GOOD ESTIMATES Don't shop only on the Internet. Ask neighbors, colleagues and (perhaps through your employer) relocation counselors to recommend a good mover. Check references, and then have at least three firms come to your home and give you a written estimate of what the job will cost. The average move — hauling 6,000 to 7,000 lbs. about 1,000 miles — runs $3,000 to $4,000. If one of the estimates is far lower than the others, consider that a red flag. If they are all in the same ball park, it's probably fine to go with the low bidder.

DO A BACKGROUND CHECK Get the "DOT number" for each mover you're considering, and call the FMCSA hot line at 888-368-7238 to see whether any of the firms have complaints on file and, if so, what types of complaints have been reported. If you hear about overcharging or hostage claims, back off immediately, says David Longo, spokesman at the FMCSA. Next, go to to see a mover's safety record for the past two years. If your mover ranks above average for the number of times its vehicles or drivers have been put "out of service" (for failing an inspection at a weigh station), look elsewhere.

UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS Move from state to state, and U.S. law forbids the mover to hold your goods and demand payment of more than 110% of your written estimate. (He's allowed to try to bill you more later — say, if your antique sofas are a lot heavier than they look or if he used more packing material than anticipated — but he has to deliver your belongings.) Move within your state, however, and you are protected only by state laws, which vary in effectiveness. For in-state moves, insist that your bill of lading — the written receipt you get the day of the move — give you the same protection as the federal law.

BUY APPROPRIATE INSURANCE If you move state-to-state, your belongings will be insured for 60 per lb. So if your 70-lb., $5,000 flat-screen TV gets smashed, you'll recoup all of $42. You'll be better off buying coverage through your home insurer. Industry experts say it's usually a better product.

You can e-mail Jean, a MONEY columnist, at