COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In a hot real estate market, more families are relocating in 2021, and that leaves room for moves to go wrong. NBC4 Investigates followed the chain of accountability and found that there aren’t many laws available to protect consumers from getting ripped off.

Amid increases in demand, higher fuel costs, and a nationwide labor shortage, customers like Mitchell Cook are on the hunt for a good deal on a move.

After Cook said he was quoted $3,200 to rent a U-Haul truck to move his 19-year-old daughter and her two friends from Groveport to Sarasota, FL, he entered his information on a website that advertised movers. After several companies called Cook, he chose to give his business to Venture Van Lines because he read positive reviews about them through a Google search. The company also promised a quick delivery and what Cook thought was a good price.

Cook signed a contract with Venture Van Lines on July 8, after he said he was told over the phone that they would have his daughter’s belongings delivered on July 16. The company provided Cook with an estimate of $4,189.35.

“It was not guaranteed, I understand that,” Cook said. “But if I had known it would have been three-and-a-half weeks later and we still don’t have our stuff, I would not ever have signed with them.”

Cook paid Venture Van Lines a deposit of more than $1,200.

On moving day, movers from a different company, S & M Relo, arrived (Cook noted that this company’s online reviews were less flattering than Venture’s). After assessing the shipment, Cook said they quoted him roughly $8,200 for the move due to cubic footage that was higher than the estimate taken by Venture Van Lines. Cook negotiated to pay $6,000 but had to agree to remove items from the shipment.

S & M Relo emailed Cook a 30-page contract, which Cook signed before the movers loaded the shipment and left.

“I signed the paper because yes, I was pressured,” Cook said, explaining that the movers were waiting outside and that he would have lost his deposit for good.

Since arriving at their three-bedroom Florida apartment on July 16, Cook’s daughter, McKenzie, and her friends, Sophie Kiley and Andy Nirode have been sleeping on air mattresses and sitting on the floor to eat takeout meals.

“It’s kind of like a vacation situation, but worse,” Kiley said.

“It’s downright aggravating,” Nirode said. “It’s not only hurting our backs and our minds but our wallets.”

Cook said he later learned that it would cost extra to shuttle the shipment in a smaller truck to his daughter’s apartment complex, and have the movers carry items up the stairs to the second floor of the building.

Stories like Cook’s are not uncommon. The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates movers, received thousands of complaints from consumers each year. In 2021, the FMCSA received more than 3,400 complaints through July 25.

A spokesperson for the agency said typically, the government cannot intervene in these cases because they end up being contract disputes, which often arise from the consumer signing documents they don’t fully read or understand.

That is what happened in Cook’s case.

A disclaimer on Venture Van Lines’ website states that the company only brokers moves, and does not work as a motor carrier. The disclaimer absolves the company of responsibility if something goes wrong with a customer’s move.

“With my paperwork, I make it to where there is no way — unless you just don’t read it — you don’t know what you’re signing,” said Steve Coburn, the owner of S & M Relo. “I have (customers) initial every line so that they know exactly what it is that they’re agreeing to so that they can’t go back and say, ‘I wasn’t told.’”

S & M Relo’s contract states in more than one location a delivery window extending through Aug. 27. It also includes a rate per cubic foot of space in the truck, as well as a section addressing additional “post-contract” fees, like shuttle service and multi-story deliveries.

“There’s companies that are trying to survive and trying to do the right thing, and we’re one of them,” Coburn said.

Coburn said his company is forced to rely on moving brokers, like Venture Van Lines, for business because they dominate Google search results.

“The reason they’re coming through moving brokers is there is no way, financially, a small moving company can compete with now with these brokers online,” Coburn said. “They just dominate the internet.”

When a move is arranged through a broker, Coburn said it’s nearly impossible for him to receive an accurate estimate before his employees arrive for a pickup.

“(Customers) letting these people do it over the phone, sight unseen. And then they want to be upset when they don’t have an accurate estimate,” Coburn said.

This leaves room for brokers to make unrealistic verbal promises over the phone, which don’t always match the fine print. They can collect their deposit and leave the movers to deal with unsatisfied customers.

“I understand when you look at the complaints that are there, they’re there. They’re legitimate. People are upset,” Coburn said. “However, what’s not legitimate is we’re not scamming them.”

When reached by phone, Venture Van Lines refused to comment.

The New Jersey-based Venture Van Lines is licensed as a broker by the U.S. Department of Transportation. S & M Relo, headquartered in central Ohio, is also licensed as a mover with USDOT.

The Ohio Trucking Association, led by President/CEO Tom Balzer, advocates for consumer protections in moving. Balzer said some moving brokers are legitimate, but it’s difficult to crack down on the ones that are not honest.

Balzer and Coburn both said moving brokers have little overhead and capital, which makes it easy for them to launch a new website, re-incorporate under a new name, and obtain a new business license.

“You can give it as much teeth as you can, but if you have no one to sink them into, they’re impossible to enforce. And I think that’s the biggest issue,” Balzer said. “It’s impossible to find these folks. They just disappear… and it’s a big issue.”

Cook said he tried to call Venture Van Lines. After a brief argument with the man who picked up, Cook said, “He actually hung up on me.”

Balzer said it’s important to research moving companies, beyond a Google search.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio maintains a list of reputable movers in the state, which can be found here. The FMCSA also provides information to consumers on how to research movers and protect themselves.

“Moving someone’s life is not a cheap endeavor. And if you go and pick a mover who’s your lowest bid, it’s probably going to end up being a bad scenario,” Balzer added.