Canada’s household moving marketplace is becoming a more inhospitable environment for liars and cheats who have inflicted untold grief on their customers and tarnished the industry’s image.
The moving industry has embraced an Industry Canada initiative that has led to the creation of voluntary Good Practice Guidelines for Canadian Movers and public information about how to avoid the sharpers who employ such tactics as giving lowball quotes, then holding shipments for ransom.
Let’s look at what’s happening in both Alberta and British Columbia.
The Alberta government’s consumer protection regulators, fortified by an October 2003 Fair Trading Act consultation paper that shows 100 per cent of moving companies to be in favour of bringing order to the province’s unregulated moving industry, are looking at recommending minimum standards to their political masters.
The FTA consultation survey contained three moving industry questions, including the one about regulating movers that drew 97-per-cent overall support from all stakeholders, including consumers. The survey also asked about mandatory licensing and bonding (96 per cent were in favour of this) and mandatory insurance (97 per cent).
“If Alberta chooses to legislate household movers, we may end up picking up some items from the Good Practice Guidelines,” Rob Phillips, executive director of the consumer services branch of Alberta Government Services, told Business Edge.
“Eventually, there will be a consultation paper with just household moving issues in it.”
The moving industry is highly visible on the radar of bunco squads and marketplace surveillance agencies across Canada. Better Business Bureau records typically show this industry sector as being perennially among the Top 5 of industry types that inspire the most complaints. It is sometimes even No. 1.
A variety of tawdry practices have provoked this outrage. In addition to lowball quotes, customers complain about being told to sign blank forms; careless handling of their belongings; drunk, foul-mouthed movers; moves taking up to five times longer than estimated; and the disappearance of property – usually the more highly fenceable items such as computers and TV sets.
Ofttimes, the customer finds out his or her putative mover has subcontracted the job to Greasy Joe’s Haulage that, for all anyone knows, may have hired its workers that day from Cash Corner or straight out of jail.
The Alberta government has responded with several prosecutions, to the applause of the moving industry.
Late last month, Calgary-based AGS investigators laid Fair Trading Act misrepresentation charges against Richard Hoffman and Safe Self Storage Inc., both operating as Ace Moving & Storage. They also charged two out-of-province companies, Noble Service Inc. and BA Service Demenage-ment Inc., with deception and giving a lowball estimate.
In addition, AGS has laid Fair Trading Act charges and a criminal fraud charge against David Van Boeyen of Calgary, who played a starring role on national TV a year ago when CBC Marketplace aired a series of reports about his shady exploits in Alberta and B.C.
Warrants have been issued for his arrest.
AGS turned up the heat after it succeeded in getting Van Boeyen fined a total of $1,250 in September 2003 for grossly late deliveries. “I think he was looking at escalating penalties with these new matters,” Phillips said. “That was one of the reasons he didn’t show.”
Albert Bouchard was fined $2,000 and his company, Acre Van Lines, Edmonton, was fined $100 in September 2003 after they were convicted of billing a customer for an amount that grossly exceeded the estimate. “A lot of corporations don’t pay their fines, and you can’t put a corporation in jail,” Phillips explained.
“We pierced the corporate veil and prosecuted Bouchard.”
Bouchard also was fined $2,000 and Acre Moving $100 after he was convicted on a misrepresentation charge. Terry Barnett, the B.C. government’s director of trade practices, said his beat is governed by several statutes, including the Trade Practice Act, Consumer Protection Act and Sale of Goods Act.
Complaints about movers are referred to local regulators, he said. But there have been no mover prosecutions in B.C. in recent years.
BBB of Mainland B.C. president Sheila Charneski said movers accounted for the third-greatest volume of complaints received in 2003 by her Vancouver-based bureau, with 209 customers submitting written complaints. “It’s a significant number,” she said. “Certainly it is a number that we would like to see decrease.”
To address the national problem, Industry Canada’s office of consumer affairs organized a working committee of federal and provincial consumer protection regulators, national and local BBB executives, representatives of the Canadian Association of Movers (CAM), consumer organizations and a York University economist.
Through a consultative process that continued for close to a year, Industry Canada developed the Canadian Mover Good Practice Guidelines, for use by movers, and a Consumer Checklist, targeted to customers.
Out of this, the CAM has introduced a Certified Canadian Mover Program. CAM member companies that elect to participate must abide by the Good Practice Guidelines and the association’s Code of Ethics.
“I think this will have a major impact,” said John Levi, president of the Mississauga, Ont.-based CAM.
Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests with the consumer. “The moving industry partially blames the consumer for what is going on,” said Phillips. “The reputable companies are having a hard time bidding against the unscrupulous companies. The consumer is too focused on price. People have to start looking at reputation, quality of the service and the complaint record with the Better Business Bureau.”
(Brock Ketcham is the director of trade practices for the Better Business Bureau of Southern Alberta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)