SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- Moving out of a home is a major undertaking, even when everything goes smoothly. But more and more often, unscrupulous moving companies are leading to moving nightmares.
KPIX 5 caught one such company in the act as the driver tried to hold a customer's belongings hostage.
Zeina El-Fakih said it began a week earlier when she hired a company called Progressive Relocation to move her cross country.
"When they get to my apartment, they don't tell me anything. They put my belongings onto the truck, and then they start charging me fees that add up to almost $2,000 more than I was originally quoted," said El-Fakih.
Increasing an estimate after the moving truck is loaded is illegal under federal law. So is tacking on additional fees of more than 10 percent. El-Fakih's price jumped nearly 200 percent. And that was just the beginning.
Delivery dates kept changing. When her angry driver finally arrived, he demanded even more money, in cash. Holding belongings hostage is also illegal.
El-Fakih's is not alone in the ordeal she faced with Progressive Relocation.
KPIX 5 ran the DOT number on her contract through the federal movers database and found several complaints for holding items hostage and illegal estimate increases in just the past year. Notably, the DOT number belongs to a company called Moving Services, not Progressive Relocation, yet another red flag.
"It's not uncommon at all," said Nicholas Oliver, chief of a new state task force focused on stopping unscrupulous movers. He told KPIX 5 he has caught at least 50 moving companies holding people's belongings hostage just since the task force started enforcement.
Oliver said the first warning sign should be any company that gives an estimate via email or over the phone.
"That's a huge red flag. It's difficult for them to give you an accurate quote if they can't see your goods," said Oliver.
Another warning sign is the mover demanding cash. And while El-Fakih did check online reviews of Progressive Relocation, she didn't search the state's online database and missed another red flag: Progressive Relocation is not licensed to deliver in California.
Operating without a license authorizes police to impound the truck and return items to their owner. When KPIX 5 told that to the movers, they proceeded to start unloading the truck.
But the moving nightmare wasn't over yet. As the movers started unloading, El-Fakih discovered boxes had been opened. Some of her furniture was also broken and some items weren't even hers.
The state's now opened an investigation into the incident. Additionally, El-Fakih filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation. By the end of the day, even the driver felt sorry for her.
"I would be upset if my daughter would go through something like this," he told her.
State officials say they can usually get belongings back if they are held hostage, but getting money back is difficult, if not impossible. Doing research before you move can help avoid headaches later.
To see if a mover is licensed to operate in California, check the California Bureau of Household Goods and Services website.
To check out a mover on the federal DOT database, enter their DOT number on this government website.
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