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Untangling a move

Under a proposed state law, consumers can get the goods on unscrupulous movers.

September 07, 2003|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

When Wende Jones was looking for a mover to relocate from one Santa Monica condo to another, her broker told her to call Mr. Move Moving & Storage, unaware that the company had more than 100 complaints on file at the Better Business Bureau.

"I was just moving a few blocks," said Jones, who moved in January and is still dealing with the nightmare that followed. "I figured how hard can this be," she said, noting her former two-story condo is 1,200 square feet and opens onto the street.

Because she had three days between the close of escrows on her old and new condos, Jones asked the moving company, which operates many affiliates, including Load Lock-N-Roll Moving & Storage, to keep her belongings for a few days before delivering. She said that a company representative came out and gave her a written estimate with a "not to exceed" price of $2,500 for moving and storage.

But the day after Mr. Move loaded her goods, Jones said, the company told her she would need to pay $14,000 or she wouldn't get her belongings. Jones refused and contacted the Public Utilities Commission, the state agency that oversees the moving industry. That night a PUC agent went with Jones to the police department to obtain a police report. Police said they couldn't intervene in a civil matter.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Moving company affiliate -- An article in Sunday's Real Estate section on moving companies incorrectly stated that one of the affiliates of Mr. Move Moving & Storage is Load Lock-N-Roll Moving & Storage. The affiliate is Load Rock-N-Roll.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Moving company affiliate -- A story in the Real Estate section on Sept. 7 on moving companies incorrectly stated that one of the affiliates of Mr. Move Moving & Storage is Load Lock-N-Roll Moving & Storage. The affiliate is Load Rock-N-Roll.

Outrageous as it sounds, stories such as Jones' are legion in the moving industry, where industry oversight is scant and enforcement weak. However, such stories may soon become less common.

Last week the state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 845, which now awaits the governor's signature. Written by state Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), the bill would hold movers accountable, give consumers more protection and make recourse swift and penalties severe.

If the governor signs the bill, it will go into effect Jan. 1. Gov. Gray Davis has not yet taken a position on the bill, spokesman Russ Lopez said.

Doug Hill, president of Los Alamitos-based California Moving & Storage Assn., consulted with Vargas during the bill's drafting. "The bill will make it quicker and easier for consumers to seek recourse and get their goods out of hock. It will give enforcement agencies and wronged consumers more weapons," he said. "We want to go after the people who give our legitimate industry a black eye."

It took one month after Mr. Move hauled away her things for Jones to get them back, she said. But that happened only after the PUC got the L.A. city attorney to order the company to release Jones' belongings for the $2,500 fee she was initially quoted.

Still, Jones said she had to pay almost $3,000 more to another moving company to pick up her belongings at the storage facility and deliver them.

Then she discovered more problems that occurred at some point in the process. Jones claims that some of her valuables were missing, including her television and computer, and that her shipment included boxes that weren't hers. Many of her household goods were damaged or broken, she added.

Eli Galam, owner of Mr. Move, said Jones signed an agreement to pay the additional costs after the movers arrived at her home and "saw the difficulty of the job." The company called in six more men to help. "It would have been physically impossible for any moving company to perform that job for $2,500," Galam said.

L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, one of the sponsors of Vargas' bill, has taken Jones' case and added her name to a list of 18 others who have filed complaints against the company. Galam and the moving crew foreman have been charged with 29 misdemeanor counts, including 10 counts of attempted extortion and 15 counts of failing to observe PUC rules, according to Eric Moses, spokesman for the city attorney's office. Arraignment is set for Wednesday.

"Mr. Move performs 3,000 moves a year," Galam's attorney and cousin, A. Eli Galam, said. "It's inevitable that in a few cases there will be some complaints. When we go to court, we will prove all these allegations are without merit."

In the 12-month period ending in May, the Better Business Bureau logged 1,278 consumer complaints about movers in the Los Angeles area, Delgadillo said. "The most troubling of those calls are the ones that involve unlicensed movers holding goods hostage for a higher price."

Even more cases go unreported, Hill said. "Often people, particularly seniors or women, won't prosecute because they're intimidated." Others simply write it off as a bad experience and never seek recourse.

Usually additional charges amount to a few thousand dollars, not nearly the $12,000 allegedly requested in Jones' case. And although the amount is significant to the average individual, it doesn't usually warrant much legal attention.

Consumers can take their cases to Small Claims Court, but collecting is difficult. Hiring an attorney to sue in a higher court often costs more than the amount disputed.

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