Consumer Protection:

Federal Actions Are Needed to Improve Oversight of the Household Goods Moving Industry

GAO-01-318: Published: Mar 5, 2001. Publicly Released: Mar 5, 2001.

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For moving services, the primary responsibility for consumer protection lies with consumers to select a reputable household goods carrier, ensure that they understand the terms and conditions of the contracts, and understand and pursue the remedies that are available to them when problems arise. Available information indicates that consumer complaints in the household goods industry are increasing. In addition, there was widespread agreement among the government, industry, and consumer organizations GAO contacted that the Department of Transportation's lack of action has contributed to the growth of problems. The Department contends that safety activities are the primary focus of its motor carrier efforts. However, the Department has not taken steps to understand the nature and extent of problems in the industry--and therefore to determine whether its limited approach to oversight and enforcement is appropriate. Nor has it made more than minimal efforts to provide information to consumers that would assist them in making more informed choices. Consumer education as a preventive tool takes on increased importance if the motor carrier administration is to pursue its course of limited oversight and enforcement. The motor carrier administration has recently recognized the need to be more active in this area and has outlined plans to increase its involvement.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FMCSA Protect Your Move Web site offers consumers the opportunity to file complaints against household goods movers, 24 hours a day. The Web site also provides a number for a Complaint Hotline, available from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, Monday through Friday, as well as links to various state agencies that provide help to consumers, such as the Better Business Bureau, the state attorney general, and state movers' associations. In addition, the Web site provides information to help consumers choose a reputable mover. FMCSA had planned to make information on the number and general nature of complaints against individual carriers available online by the summer of 2005 but were unable to meet that deadline. As of April 2006, FMCSA was working with a contractor to meet the SAFETEA-LU mandated deadline of August 2006 for having its complaint database available on line but found that developing, testing and finalizing the National Consumer Complaint Database for Household Goods Movers was significantly more complicated than anticipated. However, in May 2007, DOT informed GAO that consumers could now access complaint data about individual carriers by entering the interstate household goods carrier's company name or DOT number, although this information was not easily accessible. GAO expressed concern about the lack of visibility of the complaint database and DOT told us they would consider making changes to address our concern. As of July 2, 2007, changes have been made to the Web site so that complaint data about household goods movers is a prominent feature of the Web site and easily accessible by consumers.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should also direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to carry out public education efforts that will promote awareness of means that consumers can employ to protect themselves when they are moving their household goods across state lines and on what they can do when problems arise. These efforts should include making information on the number and general nature of complaints made against individual carriers available to the public without disclosing the complainants' identity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FMCSA held a household goods symposium in December 2001. The symposium was attended by the President of the National Association of Attorneys General, representatives of the Better Business Bureau (headquarters and state offices), and consumer protection agencies located in the Washington, D.C. area. Victims of household goods carriers also participated in the symposium. FMCSA imparted what it can and cannot do regarding protecting consumers who use household goods movers, and developed a list of initiatives it plans to take.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should also direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to carry out public education efforts that will promote awareness of means that consumers can employ to protect themselves when they are moving their household goods across state lines and on what they can do when problems arise. These efforts should include notifying state consumer and law enforcement agencies and national consumer organizations that the motor carrier administration is responsible for regulating the interstate household goods industry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As part of its marketing plan, FMCSA is in the process of developing a new website with consumer information that will be constructed and completed by the end of fiscal year 2002. FMCSA completed the household goods portion of the website in spring 2002. It is located at www.fmcsa.dot.gov, under the down menu button called "moving." It contains eight consumer self-help pamphlets, a consumer complaint form with instructions on how to file the complaint form with FMCSA, a link to several household goods movers associations, and a link to FMCSA press releases. Also included are the "Your Rights and Responsibilities" brochure and a set of frequently asked questions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should also direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to carry out public education efforts that will promote awareness of means that consumers can employ to protect themselves when they are moving their household goods across state lines and on what they can do when problems arise. These efforts should include reaching out to consumers, consumer and industry groups, and state governments and using Internet postings and other means, consistent with the motor carrier administration's plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FMCSA considered whether legislation should be enacted to change the Carmack Amendment so that individual consumers would be able to recover damages from interstate household goods carriers under state law. FMCSA determined that such legislation is not desirable because each state varies in its regulation of household goods shipping. FMCSA believes a compromise is to give states authority to enforce federal regulations and that FMCSA can also provide states with additional resources to enforce those regulations. In her April 5, 2005, testimony before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate, FMCSA's Administrator said that the agency "seeks authority for State Attorneys General to enforce Federal household goods regulations against interstate carriers because the agency believes such authority will help reduce abusive practices and makes sure there is consistency in enforcement across the country by having one set of regulations rather than many state regulations." Both H.R. 3 introduced on February 9, 2005, and S. 1072 introduced on May 15, 2003, include language that would authorize the states to enforce federal household goods statutes and regulations and that would authorize increased penalties to carriers for holding household goods hostage.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should further direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to determine the adequacy of its enforcement efforts. These actions should include determining whether legislative changes are needed to supplement the Department's efforts, including (1) authorizing the states to enforce federal statutes and regulations and (2) changing the federal statute limiting carriers' liability with respect to interstate shipments of household goods. If such changes are needed, the Department should submit them to Congress. This determination should be made after the other recommendations in this reports have been implemented and sufficient time has passed to assess the effects of the Department's actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FMCSA recognized that its actions, including enforcement, were inadequate and has therefore increased them. For fiscal year 2005, Congress appropriated $1.3 million for seven FMCSA investigator positions dedicated to household goods issues. FMCSA announced related job vacancies in late 2004 and six positions have been filled. The six investigators have received some training on household goods compliance and enforcement and are scheduled to complete their training by the end of March 2005. At that time, FMCSA intends to begin strikeforce activities that bring together investigators from throughout the country to operate in a specific area for a short period of time. Using consumer complaints to identify carriers, FMCSA plans to conduct 300 household goods investigations in 2005. FMCSA has also conducted an assessment of its household goods enforcement program to help determine staffing needs, conducted a review of household goods enforcement process aimed at streamlining the process, and improved the household goods sections of its field investigation training manual. FMCSA has also awarded a contract to assess the applicability of its Uniform Fine Assessment (UFA) tool to household goods enforcement cases.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should further direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to determine the adequacy of its enforcement efforts. These actions should include assessing whether enforcement activities against household goods carriers are effective and sufficient and, if not, increase enforcement actions against interstate household goods carriers, as outlined in the motor carrier administration's plan

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Public and Consumer Affairs has developed a web-based National Consumer Complaint Database, which was completed in October 2002. This database enables all FMCSA field (Division) offices, FMCSA headquarters staff, and consumers to enter complaints consistently in a centralized system that is monitored to identify carriers and brokers operating in a continued pattern that violates the economic regulations. Division and headquarters offices have access to information in the database and can run searches and generate reports as needed. A toll free complaint hot line is currently available for consumers to file complaints (1-888-368-7238).

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to undertake activities that would help it better oversee the industry. These actions should include ensuring that the motor carrier administration's division offices collect and maintain information on consumer complaints consistently and that the information be shared across division offices and with headquarters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of May 2008, FMCSA said that the report was in agency concurrence and it anticipates issuing the report by fall 2008. (In June 2007, FMCSA said that a draft report had been received from the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (which FMCSA contracted to conduct the study in 2004), was under review by FMCSA, and that it planned to release the report in 2007.)

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to undertake activities that would help it better oversee the industry. These actions should include undertaking and completing the study of alternative dispute mechanisms required by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Press releases are being disseminated to the public on enforcement actions taken against household goods carriers.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should also direct the Administrator, FMCSA, to carry out public education efforts that will promote awareness of means that consumers can employ to protect themselves when they are moving their household goods across state lines and on what they can do when problems arise. These efforts should include publicizing the results of the Department's enforcement cases against household goods carriers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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