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Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Moving on credit, steering clear of disputes

Fred Williams

Three weeks ago I handed over everything I own to a moving company in Virginia, along with my credit card. The company’s agent promised that my stuff would arrive at my new place in Austin, Texas, in time for me to unpack before starting my new job.

So in my new job as senior writer for CreditCards.com, my introductory blog post is about moving via credit card. There’s nothing like an extended road trip to remind you how much you lean on a 3.5-inch sliver of plastic. It provided me with ribs and suds in Memphis, souvenirs from the original Walmart in northern Arkansas and a roof over my head each night along the way.

Its biggest lift was the four-digit bill from the moving company. I opted to pay the mover via credit card, even though there was an extra fee for the privilege, because of the extra protection I thought I would receive. In the past, my card company has gone to bat for me when merchants failed to deliver. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, card companies hear disputes about erroneous bills and may cancel charges if the seller is at fault.

When the merchant is a mover, however, it gets more complicated. As John Bisney of the American Moving & Storage Association explained, federal rules set a framework for handling disputes with moving companies. Interstate moves are governed by U.S. Department of Transportation rules, which  set limits on what you can expect. For example, standard coverage limits the mover’s liability for lost or damaged articles to 60 cents per pound. Which is fine if your belongings consist of dried lentil beans — not so hot if you need to replace a busted stereo.  At the standard coverage limit, the mover could have broken all my belongings, and I would still owe about one-third of the $3,600 bill. Coverage for full replacement value is available, but at a higher rate.

With any disputed charge, you have to try to settle things with the merchant before calling in the card company for help. If a complaint isn’t resolved by the mover, the disgruntled customer can opt for independent arbitration. But if the customer bypasses the process and convinces his credit card company to cancel the charge, the mover can treat the unpaid bill like a loan and impose a fee, according to the DOT. It’s not clear how the mover will collect the fee from the unhappy client. If a dispute gets to this point, it seems likely that court would be the next stop.

However, paying by credit card does offer some protection when dealing with movers. If a carrier fails to hold up their end of the contract and then ignores your complaints — or simply makes off with your belongings — the card company can intervene. In these cases, the Fair Credit Billing Act’s protections against fraud come into play.

Instead of relying on the credit dispute process as a backstop against fraud, Bisney recommends the commonsense step of checking the company out beforehand. The American Moving & Storage Association provides information on moving companies, as does the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department. The federal data is limited to interstate movers, but the Better Business Bureau may have complaint records on local companies. In my case, the BBB had eye-opening complaint data on one mover who had quoted an attractive rate.

The convenience of online shopping has lulled some people into trusting companies too easily, Bisney told me. When picking a mover, it’s a good idea to look beyond a slick website and a low price. “You’re inviting people you don’t know to put everything you own on a truck, padlock it and drive it away,” he pointed out.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with a truckload of pulverized stereo gear showing up at my new place. I had passed over the lowball estimates, after struggling with my cheapskate tendencies, and picked a mover with a strong record.

If only I had been so disciplined at that barbecue joint in Memphis.

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