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What To Do if Movers Hold Things Hostage (2024 Guide)

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Default Author Icon Written by This Old House Reviews Team + 1 other Reviewer Icon Reviewed by Updated 06/05/2024

While there are many reputable moving providers available, the moving industry is plagued by fraudulent companies known as rogue movers. Rogue movers use illegal business practices to scam customers, such as refusing to unload packed trucks unless clients pay them additional fees. Our guide will help you spot moving scams and prepare you to fight back against scammers who hold your items hostage.

1. Know Your Laws and Rights

The best way to avoid getting scammed is to familiarize yourself with the normal billing process, what a moving company is legally allowed to do, and your rights as a customer. Below are some concepts to familiarize yourself with as you start the moving process.

110% Rule

Movers can charge you no more than 110% of a promised estimate before your household belongings have been delivered. That means if you were given an estimate of $2,400 for your move, the moving company can’t charge you more than $2,640. Movers may charge you an additional fee of up to 15% of a non-binding estimate for items that weren’t included in the estimate, but they must legally deliver your goods first. 

Binding vs. Non-Binding Estimates

A pricing estimate for a move may be binding or non-binding. Binding estimates are contractual promises from the moving company that your move won’t cost more than a fixed number. This figure is usually based on an in-person inspection of your household goods and their total weight. The figure can’t be increased after your items are loaded onto the truck.

Non-binding estimates are ballpark figures that movers offer for free. These figures don’t constitute guarantees, and you may pay more or less based on the actual weight of your goods and the services provided. 

As long as you have your non-binding estimate in writing, the moving company cannot force you to pay more than 110% of the original estimate before unloading your goods. You have 30 days to pay, during which movers cannot hold your items hostage. You have legal options to challenge the movers within this timeframe if you think there are any unfair charges.

A moving company must provide you with two brochures upon offering you an estimate. The first is called Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move. It outlines what must be included in a moving estimate, how estimates are calculated, legal liabilities, and other important information. The other brochure covers dispute resolution procedures.

Dispute Resolution Options

You have two options to resolve a dispute if you choose to challenge a moving company’s extra charges. The first is filing a lawsuit, which is often an expensive and time-consuming process. 

Alternatively, you can request neutral arbitration, a process through which a third party looks over the customer’s complaint and the company’s policies and offers a decision. Legitimate moving companies must cooperate with requests for arbitration, though rogue movers may ignore them. If this happens, a lawsuit is your only recourse.


Moving companies are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. All interstate movers must register with this department and receive a USDOT number to operate legally. 

Visit the FMCSA’s website and check the company’s USDOT number to ensure you’re dealing with a reputable moving company. This alone doesn’t guarantee the company is legitimate, but the website will show any complaints registered against the company. The FMCSA can cancel a license if the moving company is found to be illegitimate.

2. Don’t Pay Until Everything Is Unloaded

Reputable moving companies will ask you to sign a contract before the loading process begins that outlines your financial responsibilities and explains when payment is due. It’s illegal for movers to refuse to unload a truck full of your items until you’ve paid the remainder of what you owe.

If movers start demanding payment before they complete the delivery, do not pay. Scammers frequently demand cash or money orders, which will prevent you from disputing charges with a credit card company later. Insist that movers unload all your belongings from the truck before you pay. Your contract with the company means you’re already legally obligated to pay, so there’s no reason for the movers to hold your items hostage to guarantee payment.

3. Start Making Phone Calls

Contact your moving coordinator or other moving company representative to ensure a dispute isn’t simply a misunderstanding, and document the conversation. If you’re unable to reach your moving coordinator, document that. A reputable moving company will take your complaint seriously and work to rectify the problem quickly, as the FMCSA can fine a company up to $10,000 a day for illegally holding your belongings hostage.

If the company still refuses to release your belongings, contact other agencies. The Your Rights and Responsibilities brochure contains an FMCSA hotline number for customers to use if movers try to hold their belongings hostage: (888) 368-7238. You can also contact local or state law enforcement. The police may not be able to resolve the problem immediately if no law has been broken, but filing a report can provide additional documentation for your dispute.

4. Submit a Written Complaint or Report

If phone calls don’t solve the problem quickly, file written complaints with the moving company as well as the FMCSA and other consumer protection organizations. The FMCSA hotline can help you start this process, or you can visit fmcsa.dot.gov and file a complaint electronically

You should also file your complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the American Moving and Storage Association. These organizations can pressure moving companies to release your belongings. Have your contract, bill of lading, and information on the company ready as you file these reports.

5. Write Reviews

Many companies are dependent on favorable online reputations, so you may have luck forcing the company to respond to complaints on social media or popular review sites such as Yelp, Trustpilot, or Google Reviews. Your review can act as a warning to help others avoid moving scams, too.

6. Get Third Party Help

Certain state agencies, such as Pennsylvania’s or California’s, may be able to help you, as they regulate moving companies. Contact your state’s Public Utilities Commission or Bureau of Commerce. Organizations such as MoveRescue, which is sponsored by United Van Lines, can also provide advice and tips.

7. File for Dispute Resolution

If outside agencies can’t help you, turn to arbitration and civil legal action. It’s a good idea to start with arbitration because it doesn’t require you to hire a lawyer, and a professional moving company must respond. The brochure on dispute resolution should tell you how to start the process. Filing a lawsuit should be a last resort, but it can be a powerful weapon against moving fraud.

Identifying a Moving Scam

Scammers are always evolving, but here are some red flags to look for when choosing between moving companies:

  • Be wary of a company that offers deals that are much less expensive than other nearby deals. A deal that sounds too good to be true usually is.
  • Contracts or bills of lading should include any promised pickup or delivery dates the mover has offered. 
  • Most reputable companies will charge based on the weight of goods instead of volume (cubic feet). Volume can be more easily manipulated and lead to increased charges.
  • Scammers may lie about the number of years a company has been in business or about involvement in reputable professional organizations. Check all claims against the company’s BBB or FMCSA listing.

Our Conclusion

Hiring movers can be stressful, especially if you don’t know what to expect from the moving process. You can reduce this stress and protect yourself against moving scams if you know your rights and understand how pricing estimates work. Have a plan of action ready in case things go wrong.

FAQ About What To Do if Movers Hold Things Hostage

How do I protect myself from a moving company?

Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from a moving company:

  • Get written estimates from at least three moving companies. Know the difference between binding and non-binding estimates.
  • Know who to contact if something goes wrong.
  • Research moving companies with the FMCSA and BBB. Also, Google “[company name] scam” to find out about known scammers.
  • Review all contracts carefully before signing them.
  • Understand your insurance coverage, both from your homeowners insurance and the moving company itself.

How do I dispute a credit card charge with movers?

Dispute a credit charge with movers by contacting your credit card company. A customer service number is available on your card or statements.

What is the best way to go about getting a refund from movers?

The best way to get a refund from movers is to contact the moving company to file a complaint and seek arbitration or file a lawsuit if you’re unsuccessful. If you believe you’ve encountered a scam, contact the FMCSA, BBB, AMSA, or a state consumer protection agency.

What can I do when movers damage my property?

If movers damage your property, contact the company directly to see if you can negotiate a resolution. If you have moving or homeowners insurance, you can file a damage claim with the insurance company.

How do I get my deposit back from the movers?

To get your deposit back from movers, verify that your deposit is refundable under the terms of your contract. If you believe you’ve been subjected to fraud, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company or contact the FMCSA or BBB.

To share feedback or ask a question about this article, send a note to our Reviews team at reviews@thisoldhousereviews.com.