Sandra L. Cook knew her wheezy, 13-year-old Datsun would never make the long trip from Florida to her retirement home in Upstate New York. So for $625, she hired an auto mover to take it. Instead, she said, the auto mover took her for a ride.
Cook canceled her contract with AAA Discount Auto Shippers after 32 days because the company could not say when it would deliver the car. She asked for a full refund, but was told to forget it.
AAA Discount, which said it had trouble finding a trucker to ship the car, noted that Cook had signed a contract giving the company a non-refundable deposit.
In customer disputes, car-moving companies have clear advantages, government regulators say. The typical contract requires customers to pay a non-refundable deposit of about $250.
The contract cancels any promises about delivery dates. It also requires customers to sue a car-moving company on its own turf. If Cook decided to sue, she would have to fly to Los Angeles, where AAA Discount was based.
Consumers who look to the government for help often come away frustrated. The Interstate Commerce Commission regulates car-moving firms but acknowledges that it does not have enough staff to keep up with a steady flow of complaints. For the most part, consumers are on their own.
The personal-car shipping industry transports upward of 100,000 cars a year, mostly for retired people who fly to their destination, or for two-car families who drive one car to their new home. For these people, a specialized car-shipping firm is a less costly alternative to household goods movers such as Allied Van Lines or Mayflower.
The number of car shippers has grown since 1979, when the trucking industry was deregulated and firms were permitted to freely set prices and select routes. The industry's problems appear to have grown also.
Lona Luckett, director of operations for the Better Business Bureau in Los Angeles and Orange counties, said she regularly receives consumer complaints about late shipments, overcharges and damage.
In one case, she said, a man who moved to Germany last year has not received his pickup truck or a refund of the $1,985 he paid to have the car shipped. She said such problems are not atypical.
Trucking executives contend that many car-shipping firms operate without frequent customer complaints. Tom Anderson, co-owner of Car Carrier in Pasadena, said the industry's poor reputation makes it difficult to do business.
He said customers always ask whether he will rip them off. "How do you answer that? I tell them I won't, but I can't prove it."
The majority of complaints are about transportation brokers, go-betweens that take orders from consumers and hire trucking companies to haul the cars.
Law enforcement officials say problems arise when brokers, anxious for business, promise consumers fast delivery. In fact, brokers have little control over when a trucking company will deliver a car.
Problems also occur when brokers try to win business by understating the cost. Last year, the Los Angeles district attorney's office successfully prosecuted the operator of several large car-shipping firms for overcharging consumers by slapping on extra fees for "old" cars or "oversize" cars after agreeing to ship the car at a lower price.
Los Angeles businessman Barry A. Levine pleaded no contest to one count of grand theft. He is on probation and temporarily barred from the business.
Despite some successful prosecutions, law enforcement officials admit that they cannot keep up with complaints about car-shipping firms. Robbins, the ICC attorney, said his agency is so understaffed that it lets cases build up against a firm before taking action. By that time, though, victims often have moved or no longer wish to testify, he said.
When the ICC decides to go forward, cases can take years to litigate. It took the agency a decade to revoke the license of a New York-based broker, AAA Con Auto Transport, after a series of administrative actions and federal court appeals.
Consumers rarely come out ahead in long-distance fights with car-shipping firms. After adding up the price of airline tickets, rental cars, meals and lost wages, Lakewood, Colo., railroad electrician Alberto T. Morais estimates that it cost him more than $1,000 to win an $849 court judgment against A. Aaron's Auto Shippers, a Palm Springs-based broker.
"I am so angry," Morais said.
His complaint is one of 108 filed against A. Aarons last year, some of which are under investigation in Riverside County. The district attorney's office is concerned that shipment delays may in some cases be a ruse to keep deposits.
The ICC, meanwhile, is suing A. Aarons for various infractions, including allegations that the company permitted its surety bond to lapse and failed to keep proper records. A. Aarons denies most of the ICC's allegations. Owner Mitchell Winik said delays are a normal part of the car-moving business, and that problems arise because consumers are impatient.