The ICC Termination Act of 1995 transferred federal responsibilities for protecting consumers from unscrupulous movers to the Department of Transportation. The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, which set up the FMCSA in an effort to improve truck safety, also directed the GAO to assess the effectiveness of the DOT's consumer protection activities in the interstate moving industry.
Information the GAO compiled from various federal agencies and industry organizations indicated that the complaints they received generally doubled between 1996 and 1999, and may number several thousand a year.
"The Department of Transportation has provided limited oversight of and has taken little enforcement action in consumer protection issues because this responsibility is a relatively low priority compared with promoting motor carrier safety," reads the report. "Government, consumer organization, and industry officials we contacted believe that the Department's lack of action has created a vacuum that has allowed unscrupulous carriers to flourish and take advantage of consumers."
DOT spokesman David Longo says while "we take these household goods responsibilities very seriously, first and foremost we're a safety agency. Our number one mission is to save lives and reduce injuries by reducing crashes involving large trucks and buses."
Indeed, in the congressional hearings that led up to the formation of the agency, the drumbeat was loud and clear that the number of truck-related fatalities must come down. In fact, then-Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater vowed to cut the number in half in 10 years.
The GAO report notes that last December, the FMCSA approved plans to increase public education, information collection, and enforcement, among other things. In January, FMCSA expanded the scope of its 24-hour toll-free driver hotline (1-888-DOT-SAFT) to let consumers notify the agency about movers who violate commercial regulations.
Longo says the agency plans to expand its educational efforts in this area, but that plan has not yet been finalized. And while he says prevention is the best medicine, "over the past year or so, we have successfully completed about 30 enforcement activities, including fines, out of service, carriers going out of business and actually jail time for the owners."
The enforcement activities target the unscrupulous fleets, habitual offenders "who believe there is no government watchdog," Longo says. The vast majority of the 3,000 to 4,000 complaints the agency receives each year - furniture being held hostage, overcharging, delays in delivery - are resolved over the phone. "A call from the federal government is normally enough to scare the mover into acting immediately," he says.
The moving industry itself has taken action to try to protect its image from unscrupulous movers. In addition to educational programs, the American Moving and Storage Assn. has set up voluntary certification program for movers.