Scammers seek to manipulate the review system to trick even the most educated consumers
Kari thought she knew firsthand how difficult a cross-country move could be. An East Coast native, she’d packed up her life and moved to San Francisco for work in 2018. But while that relocation was stressful, it wasn’t until she decided to move back east during the Covid-19 pandemic that she realized just how intense — and expensive and frustrating and heartbreaking — moving cross-country could be.
Kari considers herself an educated consumer, so she did her due diligence in her search for a moving company. She checked reviews across sites, got quotes from multiple companies, and spent hours talking to sales representatives. She finally settled on a company called Alltrust Movers, which she says “had great reviews, a sales guy who was so helpful and very responsive, and the most reasonable quote.” She made a detailed list of her items in order to get an estimate of the cost; put down $1,000 to secure the move; and gave a leaving date for when her lease was up.
(Amount spent so far: $1,000.)
“I had an especially tight timeline because of the pandemic and concerns about safety,” Kari tells Avast. “The plan was to fly back out to San Francisco, get everything packed in a week, and fly back [east] the night of the move.”
Like many moving companies, Alltrust told her they would call about 24 hours beforehand with a firm arrival time the following day. But the day before the scheduled move, there was no call. Kari reached out to that “helpful” and “responsive” sales guy. No answer. She called the main line for Alltrust Movers. No answer. Customer service. No answer. She started to panic.
Finally, Kari called the sales line and got someone on the phone, who told her that the movers weren’t coming that day. Instead, they’d be coming the next day — and they were within their contract, which stipulated a two-day window for the moving time. Kari said she was also told that she’d be notified if the move was pushed past her preferred date, but Alltrust told her there was nothing they could do.
So Kari went into crisis management mode, begging the management company of her apartment building to let her stay and changing her flights. She figured, okay, this isn’t great — but it’s not unheard of for a major move. Things get mixed up even during normal times. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and who knows what could happen?
(Amount spent so far: $1,200.)
But the next day, when the movers showed up, they told her that the quantity of her stuff meant that it was going to cost $7,000 for the move — nearly double the $4,000 she was originally quoted. They also said that if she didn’t sign the new contract right there and pay them right away, they’d leave without packing anything.
“I had already pushed everything out and was completely screwed,” Kari says. “I had to sign. I had no other choice.”
(Amount spent so far: $7,200.)
Fast forward a month and Kari was back in Boston — but her stuff wasn’t. And she had no idea where it was. After a month of daily, unanswered calls, she got through to Alltrust. They said they couldn’t tell her when her items would arrive, and that the very fine print on her contract gave them up to 21 days from the “first available delivery date” to deliver.
They also said they didn’t have to give her any details beyond that — and that was in the contract, too. According to Kari, the contract also said that as long as her requested date was at least four weeks after the move, she had nothing to worry about. Our hands are tied, Kari says Alltrust told her.
For six weeks, Kari called every day. Sometimes Alltrust refused to tell her where her stuff was currently located. Sometimes they refused to tell her when it would be arriving. Sometimes they just ignored her calls. When she finally got through to the manager, he put her on hold for an hour and then hung up on her.
“I was working in an empty apartment with no chair to sit on, no bed to sleep on, no pot to cook with — for six weeks,” Kari says.
It wasn’t until Kari called the police in Miami, where Alltrust is located, and a policeman went out to check it out that she finally got some solid information. Kari says the manager called her back, “yelled” at her, and told her the location of her things — but also said she wasn’t allowed to pick them up.
Turns out, all of her worldly possessions were still back in California. There’d been no attempt to move them. And the manager told her that the fine print of her contract said that she could set a specific date for it to arrive, but it would cost her an additional $1,500. Kari refused.
“I’d already been waiting weeks and weeks with no update,” she says. “And they wouldn’t tell me anything until a policeman showed up.”
(Amount asked for so far: $8,700. Amount spent: $7,200.)
A scam fueled by fake reviews
While Kari tried to figure out how to get her things back without paying what was essentially a ransom, she realized that those positive reviews she’d read months ago were likely fake. A closer read revealed patterns across sites that she hadn’t seen before, including the fact that language was similar across the positive reviews and the first pages tended to be stacked with positive reviews.
But digging into page two or three brought up stories that were disturbingly similar to her own experience with Alltrust Movers: Responsive salesperson. Great quote. Double the price on moving day. Items don’t arrive on time. No response from the company. Items don’t arrive. Items don’t arrive. Items don’t arrive. And then, they ask for more money.
According to Art Forrester, an investigator with the Better Business Bureau in Florida, this kind of scam is common in the moving industry, which isn’t consistently regulated by the government. In Florida, Art says, a moving business “doesn’t require a license.”
“It’s $120 to get incorporated, file with the Department of Transportation, pay $75,000 in insurance, and you’re in business,” Art tells Avast.
This lack of accreditation — plus the emotions tied up in the fact that moving companies take physical possession of a person’s entire life — means that there’s a lot of room for fraud in the moving industry. And that’s what Kari realized she’d run into. She was being scammed.
A representative from Gentle Giants, a Boston-based moving company Kari called to see about getting her stuff back, told her that this kind of scam was getting “more and more common” during the Covid-19 pandemic. The scam starts online, with a shift between names — and domain names — once a critical mass of bad reviews starts to pile up. So for “Alltrust Movers,” you might see “All Trust Movers,” “All Trust Moving and Storage,” or “All Trust Moving Company.”
A consumer doing her due diligence and cross-checking reviews could easily think that a bad review was for another company with a similar name. But, in reality, it’s the same LLC — just a different domain.
When asked about the positive reviews for Alltrust Movers on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) site, Art provided some insight into how their review verification system works. The BBB uses a third-party vendor to determine whether or not a review is fake. They have a set of criteria they scan for, which includes things like comparing locations, email addresses, and other criteria Art asked we not share for fear that it would make it easier for scammers to take advantage of the system.
“Is it the most bulletproof thing in the world?” Art says. “Probably not. But it’s like radar. It scans the horizon.”
When Art did his own investigation into the reviews for Alltrust, he found a few red flags that the algorithm didn’t catch. For example, most of the reviews were from the same month, which seemed odd for a moving company. They also all came from Gmail accounts, which are easy and free to set up.
“Normally you’d see Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, work email,” Art says. “Only Gmail? That’s a red flag.”
And while the IP addresses of the reviews were all different, almost all of the positive ones came in at 7 or 8 am. “That’s fishy, because people don’t usually make their cup of coffee and sit down to write reviews first thing in the morning.”
Getting everything back — almost
Kari’s furniture finally arrived nine weeks after she left San Francisco and five weeks after it was supposed to. She says “some things were broken and a ton was missing.”
“Every box was labeled, but one with over $2,000 of furniture just ‘happens' to be missing,” Kari says. “To me it’s pretty obvious that they took my things and resold them and this is an online scam they’re running.”
Kari says that Alltrust won’t provide any information about where her missing items are, instead serving her with legal-sounding notices demanding proof of receipt for anything lost. “As if you have a receipt for furniture you bought five years ago,” Kari sighs.
And while she’s happy to have most of her things back — and to not be living and working out of an empty apartment anymore — Kari is still upset that she “did a ton of research” and was scammed anyway. “They set it up to fool even people who do their homework,” she says.
Scams that manipulate the review system trick even “people who do their homework” for the same reason we rely on reviews in the first place: Humans are more likely to trust other humans than they are to trust businesses or corporations. (Just picture a pre-Covid line for a popular restaurant or bar in your area for a perfect illustration of this fact.) And that trust is extended to people we don’t know — sometimes to our detriment.
In the time between Kari’s move and this article being published, the bad reviews for Alltrust Movers have piled up again. (Avast reached out to Alltrust for comment and had not heard back at time of publication.) The first page of Yelp, for example, is packed with one star reviews, all of them repeating the same scam story over and over again. There’s no way Kari would go with them if she was moving today.
How to spot a scam moving company
For big expenses like a cross-country move, it’s worth it to do more homework than you might expect. And while investigators like Art have a behind-the-scenes view into stuff like IP addresses and time of posting, the average consumer doesn’t. But he does have some tips for people on how to avoid being scammed by an unscrupulous moving company.
First, see if they’ve gone out of their way to get accreditation. While the government doesn’t do a great job regulating the moving industry, there are organizations that have stepped in to fill the gap. The Better Business Bureau, for example, will give accreditation to a company after doing a thorough investigation. (And it’s worth noting that while Alltrust Movers had reviews on the BBB site, they weren’t actually accredited. It’s a subtle but important point.)
Once you’re in the process of vetting companies, Art suggests looking at the address the company provides. Go as far as taking a look on Google Maps or checking it out in person if it’s a local company. If the location looks shady — or it’s just a PO Box or mail drop — that’s a big red flag.
In the sales process, be wary of any company that tries to rush you into anything or wants you to sign something online before you see an actual contract. “When we’re dealing with fraud or high-risk businesses, they always want to make the sale quickly,” Art says. He adds that the salespeople have scripts that are packed with buzzwords that you might not understand.
“These guys sell on the phone for a living. That’s their job — they know what they’re doing,” Art says. “They’re going to use terms you don’t know. You might generally know these terms, but do you really know what 900 cubic feet means? No.”
A lower-than-expected cost is also a big red flag. Because moving is so expensive, people are always searching for the best deal. But, as Kari learned the hard way, an initial quote of $4,000 might lead to more than double that price down the road.
“Do you really think if you move from LA to Boston, it’s only going to cost $3,000? Does that really seem reasonable? Get a second or third quote,” Art says. “It’s like anything else: If you’re buying a car and it’s like ‘Wow, why is this one cheaper than what the other two are selling?’ What’s wrong with it?”
Finally, read the contract. All of it. Even that very fine print, because that’s where they’re going to get you if they’re going to get you. When Kari ran into issues with Alltrust, they repeatedly referred back to the fine print and appendices in her contract — including the one she was pressured into signing on her moving day.
“Read the contract,” Art says. “It’s dense. If you can’t read it, ask a friend who might have better knowledge. It’s written by a lawyer. It protects the business — not so much you.”
As for Kari, she’s just ready for all of this to be over. She’s still waiting to find out about her missing items and was happy to hear that the BBB would be taking down reviews they think are false, as well as suspending their rating. She also hopes that her story might help other people who are planning a move, especially during this stressful time.
“The fact that [this company] continues to prey on the weak is really awful,” Kari says. “I just kept trying to appeal to them as humans.”
Total amount spent: $8,000 Total value of lost and broken items: $2,094.95 Total cost: $10,094.94