WASHINGTON, July 5, 1999 -- Even Congress is beginning to recognize that consumers need protection from rogue interstate movers. As part of its effort to balance the budget, Congress in 1995 eliminated the Interstate Commerce Commission, which, among other things, had regulated interstate movers.

Meanwhile, old laws continue to prohibit states from effectively regulating interstate movers. The result: open season on consumers moving their household goods from one state to another.

Each year about two million American families move across state lines, spending $7 billion a year on movers. More and more of them are being mercilessly ripped off.

"It's out of control," Larry Kaplan, president of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Kaplan and other consumer advocates say that rogue movers are multiplying rapidly -- and established moving companies are no longer very quick to settle consumer complaints.

Here's a typical scam:

  • A consumer calls directory assistance and asks for the number of a well-known moving company, but gets the number of a fly-by-night company with a similar name.
  • The company provides a low-ball estimate and the consumer signs a contract.
  • The movers pack up the consumer's belongings but then refuse to deliver or unload them at the other end, demanding immediate payment of a much higher fee.
  • There is almost no one a consumer can turn to for help in this situation. Interstate movers are beyond the reach of state courts and state attorneys general.

Kaplan estimates consumers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars since Congress eliminated the ICC and left individuals to find for themselves.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis) says he plans to seek legislation that would let states prosecute interstate movers. Petri chairs a House subcommittee on surface transportation.