A proposed federal database that would allow the public to research complaints against interstate moving companies lacks important consumer information, such as which companies have histories of holding customers belongings hostage, Public Citizen has told the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The agency needs to make important changes to the proposed database so that the information reported by the moving companies is relevant to consumers, Public Citizen said.

"Consumers place a significant amount of trust in moving companies when they use them to move the contents of their homes," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "It can also be a very large expense - and, when moves go wrong, a huge headache. It is imperative that FMCSA does the best job it can to provide people with the ability to research complaints against these companies effectively."

Congress called for the database in the 2005 highway bill because of mounting consumer dissatisfaction with household moving services. The legislation requires interstate moving companies to compile consumer complaints and report them to FMCSA every quarter. The highway bill also set up a second database to track the more than 3,000 complaints that consumers file directly with FMCSA each year.

In comments filed with FMCSA, Public Citizen identified three chief complaints with the information that will come from the moving companies:

• With complaints broken down into only five very broad categories - (1) loss and damage, (2) service, (3) rates or charges, (4) how claims are handled, and (5) other complaints - there is insufficient detail for consumers. These categories do not allow consumers to research companies complaint histories in ways that matter to them.

For example, Public Citizen pointed out, the number one consumer complaint is that movers hold their goods hostage. Under the proposal, consumers cannot search for complaints about this problem, which many fear most.

Public Citizen urged the agency to standardize the industry-compiled database with the existing database of complaints filed directly with the agency, which uses more detailed and more helpful categories for searching. There should be one comprehensive, accessible and searchable database with detailed information.

• Although the proposed rule sets out fines for companies that fail to comply with the reporting requirements, there is nothing in place, such as a proscribed audit or monitoring program, to guarantee that FMCSA will enforce the rules against many companies.

• Finally, Public Citizen called upon FMCSA to launch an improved education program to let the public know that these databases are available. In fact, Public Citizen observed, FMCSA has already produced the database of complaints consumers file directly with the agency - but its brochures about consumers rights fail to adequately tell the public about its existence, and there has been no publicity about its availability.

"Consumers have waited a long time for these much-needed tools," Claybrook said. "FMCSA must improve its proposal to make sure that wait was not in vain."