The Moving Industry Scam

I’m not an investigative reporter. I am just one person with a story to tell. Here it is.

I had never used a moving company before, until this past December.

Labor intensive as self-moving is, there is something comforting about being in control. If anything breaks, well, I have only myself to blame. Last fall, I made a long move sans professionals with nary a broken wine stem. I had friends to help and had been budgeting for the move for some time. Stressful, yes. Traumatic, no.

I had planned on spending a year down south during a teaching sabbatical. That plan tanked and I abruptly found myself needing to extricate myself from a home, a city, a state, and quickly. It was the Christmas season, which was a bit of a complication. And this time I had no support system—I’d left them all behind in New York. What to do?

To provide some context: I was shattered emotionally, tenuous financially, drained physically and psychically and did I mention it was Christmas? My kids were 1500 miles away. Enough said. Add to this the draining away of some pretty lofty hopes and dreams, the ignominious crashing of a love affair both ancient and new, and the desperate need to get away from a place where I had never found purchase and was decidedly not wanted.

About a week before Christmas, between bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, I searched the web for info about moving companies and began making inquiries. I received prompt and eager return calls from efficient sales personnel. I filled out inventories of belongings. I confided my need to get out fast. (My first mistake?) I was clearly a vulnerable customer prime for the sting.

I found out that some companies charge by space, some by weight. Of course, both of these calculations are virtually impossible to make over the phone. So we practiced the fine art of approximating.

The price quotes started rolling in. The very high numbers scared me. After all, this had to go on my credit card. The lower numbers got me calling back. I found one salesman who seemed like a real person. Dave was thoughtful and reassuring. He helped me make an itemized list of every object I had to move and a guesstimate of the number of boxes. His price quote was less heinous than many. Except for the uncertainty of the boxes, I knew for a fact we had not missed a single thing on our list. Based on my inventory, Dave was fairly confident that he could estimate the amount of square footage needed in the truck for my stuff. He admitted it would not be exactly perfect, but did not anticipate any big shocks when the final price was given, on the day of the move.

I started collecting boxes. Craig’s list was a great source of free boxes as people who had just moved were trying to get rid of the stuff. I also became friends with the liquor store guys, making nightly forays into their back room and divesting them of what, from their point of view was trash, and to me was a penny earned.

On Christmas Eve day, I started packing. Frantic as I was, I managed to label every box and wrap every piece of pottery with care. By the end of Christmas day, I was fully boxed up and in a state of heightened anxiety and depression that translated to single-minded focus on the tasks left to do. When I ran out of tasks, I made some up. Then I took a three hour walk and waited for bedtime.

The next day, the movers arrived, on time. Their head honcho, Val, swept through the apartment eyeballing the situation. He said, “Okay, you have 12 more boxes than you said you’d have. Looking around, this looks like yadda yadda square feet.” (I can’t remember numbers to save my life.) He whipped out his calculator and gave me the bottom line. “That means your estimate was off by $950.00. But we’ll do the best we can to keep that down. My guys are great.” As he spoke, his “guys” were already wrapping my couch in plastic.

I had started to cry (so embarrassing to remember this) when Val said, ‘$950.00.’ That was another third again on top of Dave’s estimate, which, to my current budget and pessimistic frame of mind, was beyond reason already.

I called Dave, the salesman, and left a message on his voicemail. I explained, haltingly, about Val’s calculations and wondered, angrily, how Dave could have screwed up so badly? I remember choking out the words, “I’m stuck now. I fly out tomorrow, my stuff is in boxes and I have no recourse.” I still had not figured out that this was, of course, business-as-usual. I did not hear back from Dave. At least not that day.

As the hours crawled on, I experienced for the first time what it is like to be moved by people who not only don’t care about me one bit, but don’t know me from Eve. I was just that morning’s job.

I think I threw them for a loop when, in a full-on state of panic, I started crossing things off my list of what I was taking. Since there was someone else living in the apartment too, I could leave things without difficulty. Aside from the fact that I was parting with my belongings. It felt like my life had become nothing but partings and leave-takings and this was all too much. Deciding to leave the rocking chair in which I’d nursed my babies—that was a tear jerker. It took up so much space, though. Maybe ditching it would pare down the cost. Two book shelves – leave them. A telephone table. A coffee table. These things struck me as taking up a lot of square inches and I thought, “I’ll get that damned estimate back down if I have to leave my left leg here.”

At the end of the day, after the semi-guilt-ridden men took my denuded Christmas tree to the dumpster for me, Val came to me with a big smile on his face. “Well, after packing the truck nice and tight, I have your final price.” And he gave me a number $675.00 less than what he’d quoted me at nine that morning.

My relief was enormous. It seemed like a gift. I even thanked him. I gag a little now, remembering. “Oh, good,” I breathed. “Good thing I was able to leave some stuff behind.”

He did not comment on that. We finalized our affairs. I signed some more papers. I said goodbye and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to cauterize my tear ducts.

Cut to the chase. Never mind about the rest of the move. I moved.

My credit card balance swelled. I washed up on the shores of home and crawled to dry land. I regained my equilibrium one day at a time and, mostly, managed to put on a brave face.

One day, about three weeks after all my stuff had been squeezed into a storage unit, I was sitting in a local coffee bar when my phone rang. It was Dave. Remember Dave?

Turns out he is a person after all. I’d been right about that, at least.

“Vanessa, I wanted to call you now that I don’t work for that moving company any more. I felt so bad that day you called me. What a mess.” Dave explained to me that he had only been working there a month when he and I first spoke to plan my move. He’d gotten the job through his girlfriend’s father, and it took him awhile to get the lay of the land. To realize there was a nasty subplot. The subplot is: bait, lure, gouge. The bait is a lowball estimate that gets the customer interested. Not so lowball as to sound fishy, but low enough. Then once you have the signed contract and the downpayment, continue to be very customer-friendly and available until the day of the move itself. Then be “away from your desk.” The part about the driver giving an extra high “re-estimate” of cost is part of the strategy, built in to the plan all along.

I’d actually figured as much. And it had worked perfectly on me. The $950.00 extra was so scary that I was actually HAPPY that the final cost was only $300.00 higher than the estimate. I honestly think that, had I not ditched so many pieces of furniture, the final numbers would have come in around $500.00 higher, but even Val could not justify that.

Dave corroborated all my vague paranoid speculations. Apparently, not many people end up reporting their moving estimate frustrations the way I did. My overwrought mental state and complete isolation (who did I have to talk to about this but Dave, after all?) meant I called him that morning and left him that garbled, choked, angry, petrified voicemail. And, being a person, he followed up.

What he found out was just how cold-blooded the whole operation was. The drivers are part of the overall plan, and know how to use the oh-so-effective scare tactics. That’s when Dave quit.

He quit the job and I respect him for it. And he called me back, eventually, to apologize and validate my feelings. So that’s the good part.

The bad part is – I feel a profound lack of trust when it comes to industries like the moving business. (And I know for a fact that not all movers are unscrupulous, but I’ve been, officially, burned.) They have their customers in a double bind no matter what. (Someday I’ll write about when I went through the wringer with the funeral home industry – talk about having vulnerable clients who can’t exactly say, “Never mind; I won’t put my loved one to rest after all, you big bully.”)

But with luck I can translate the vulnerability of not trusting into something else. Learning how to be strong when weak. How to see clearly through tears. How to recognize choices instead of roadblocks. How to find the lessons within every hurtful experience and then, let the hurt go.

At this point, she's seen it all.

At this point, she’s seen it all.

The Voice Inside My Head

I got an email from myself yesterday. It was written from my iPhone in the middle of the night when apparently I woke up with an idea I did not want to forget. Here’s what I wrote (typos corrected): “Inner knowing. Big decisions. Hearing the voice. And trusting it. When you go too long ignoring it, when you finally hear it, maybe it’s off balance.”

I think if I’d woken up fully, then and there, I might have been able to channel what the heck it was I wanted to get across. But I’m going to tackle this one anyway, two days later and in the early morning light, surrounded by unpacked boxes.

My inner-knowing radar may need calibration. I am having a hard time trusting myself these days. Why? Because a year and a half ago, in the middle of my seemingly normal life, I salted my own fields, retreated, repatriated elsewhere, retreated again, and am still picking up the pieces of my heart, mind, life….

At first, my choices—all the dramatic and insistent maneuvers of the last year and a half—were made with the certain knowledge that I was doing the right thing. That feeling faded to the point that now, no matter which direction I take, it seems fraught with confusion and doubt.

In an effort to protect the innocent, I will skip over a lot of the gory details. I will focus, instead, on something that, both literally and metaphorically, defines much of my life over the last year.

Moving.

Some history. As a younger woman, living in Charlottesville, VA, I moved a lot. I could handle it. I had enough stuff to fit into an efficiency apartment, small cottage or two pick-up trucks (usually one, making two trips). Each new place was a new nest I’d feather, efficiently and cozily, knowing I could unfeather it quickly if the need arose.

Then I divested, moved back to New York to attend grad school. I lived in a room at the top of a friend’s brownstone. Monastic and luxurious at the same time. I knew what I was doing.

When I got married, suddenly the moveable feast that was my life became something more settled. With that came security, steadiness and 25 years in one house. A lovely house more than 100 years old, filled with the joyful objects of family: framed photos, a favorite omelet pan, walls of books, a collection of tablecloths and napkins. That kind of thing.  Nothing about the choice to buy a home 40 minutes from work, at the crest of a housing boom, in a rural town (I’m a city girl remember) seemed uncertain. It was right and I knew it. My life was right and I knew it.

Fast forward. When did all that certainty turn into such a pretense of certainty? But the thing about pretense is that the pretender does not know she’s pretending…. I became my role. I was the method actor of all time. Talk to my friends. They were convinced by my performance. (Well, most of them. Okay, well maybe not, but lots of people were.)

Sometimes the universe (or my inner voice) tries so hard to get my attention and I just power through life, ignoring the signs. So one day I found myself moving out of the house of 25 years. Moving out of the marriage. Moving. Like the Tin Man, once my rusty joints were oiled, I careened wildly, leaving quite a wake.

After my daughter was firmly ensconced back at college, I looked around the home I’d made so lovingly for so long, and was ready (wasn’t I?) to leave it. I started to pack. Box after box. When I left, my estranged husband was to move back in and take possession. Did I let the grief of it all penetrate my plan-addled mind? Did I allow for one minute my inner knowing to communicate with my inner idiot long enough to wake me up so that I could, at the very least, process what was happening?

I packed. I loaded. I moved far far away for my sabbatical year. (Yes, it seemed a good idea to take a break from my job of 25 years at the same time I left my marriage of 26 years. Not to mention my home. Where was my inner knowing? I just don’t know.)

Well, things did not work out. I did not make it a year. By Christmas I was packing again. (There is a lot of story I’m leaving out here; can you tell?) But the point is, I had been so sure. The trauma of changing gears so soon again after the first move was great. Many insistent dreams were showing their true colors as fantasy, idealism, delusion. But, with every box I packed on Christmas Eve, my inner voice was clear.

Or was it?

At this point, the sight of a box taped shut with my handwriting on it— “Kitchen/serving platters,” “framed photos,” “books,” “sweaters and lampshade”—creates a visceral reaction in me. Sorrow, panic, comfort, doubt, curiosity and a glimmer of hope all swirl around and make me nauseated.

Now, I’m moving again. Unpacking. Again. I have made a decision based on the advice given to me by my heart, my head, my hopes and what remains, essentially, an optimistic outlook. But I cry a lot. I don’t trust myself any more.

After so many years of dishonoring the inner voice, I decided to do whatever the inner voice said, without question. Neither approach worked that well. Is there more than one inner voice? Is one my friend and one a saboteur? How to tell them apart?

All that being said, I know that I have a deep well of wisdom within me. We all do. I am the only potential saboteur here. I am the only one who can block the voice from reaching me.

A friend of mine recently said, “You may not trust yourself, but I trust you. I trust that whatever you do it is for your highest good.” I needed to hear that.

This year, my highest good has been served, apparently, by uprooting myself, repeatedly. By humbling myself as I learned at last how insecure I really am; how much my pretense of certainty was a tool of survival but not a path for growth. Okay, inner knowing– I’m ready to listen.

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