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Checking Out That Man With a Van

Published: May 12, 2005

MAN with a van - or man with a scam? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

After trying to get their things moved in Manhattan, two software engineers, Jackson Yang and Eric Isenberg, did what they had to do: they started a Web site. The result, Citimove, encourages consumers to rant about bad movers and to praise good ones. It's a matchmaking service, too, allowing people who are about to move in the New York City area to invite bids from moving companies. (Consumers use the service free; movers pay about 50 cents a bid.)

Jack Coble for The New York Times

New Yorkers are going online to assess moving companies, like Movemaster, owned by George Marengo.

Since the site went online 18 months ago, it has built a following. It draws about 3,500 unique visitors a month, attracting advertising from movers and generating a tiny profit, the owners said.

Mr. Yang's experience wasn't all that bad; his movers simply complained nonstop and could barely fit his possessions in their van. "It was enough to annoy me," he said. His eight-block Midtown move took four hours and cost $500, twice as much time and way more money than expected.

"How could it be, in this city where there are so many movers and so many people moving, there is no reference point?" said Mr. Yang, 25. "This totally uncontrolled industry needed a way to regulate movers and build a supply-demand exchange."

Though the Web is a repository of consumer opinions and advice, "it didn't seem there was a way to find cheap, reliable, small movers," said Mr. Isenberg, 26. Hoping to move a desk from his place to a buyer's, he went to Craigslist, the popular online classified Web site, where he found movers but no way to know who the scammers were.

Many moving companies have their own sites, peppered with glowing testimonials, but only a few sites critique them. The biggest is probably three-year-old Movingscam (movingscam.com), which offers tales of movers, mainly long-distance ones, who wreck stuff or hold it hostage. But the site does little to identify good movers.

About 14 percent of all Americans move each year, and with prime moving season approaching, the need for advice is acute. According to one estimate, one in five moves results in a loss or damage claim, said David Sparkman, a spokesman for the American Moving and Storage Association, a trade group for licensed and insured movers.

Not everyone needs a professional mover with a superlong truck. When Danielle Schwartz moved some old furniture from Scarsdale, N.Y., to the East Side of Manhattan last fall, she said she "didn't care if they scratched my stuff" and was pleasantly surprised by the competence of Citimove's best-rated service, Movemaster.

Hiring a man with a van, however, is often akin to flagging down a passing motorist and paying him to haul your stuff. Most small movers require cash payments and drive unmarked vehicles. Fly-by-nighters routinely change names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

New Yorkers, who rarely own cars and often need a hand with small moves, are particularly vulnerable. Horror stories often involve hapless customers being lured by lowball prices, only to be hit up for more money when they are in no position to argue - like when all of their worldly goods are locked up in the van of two beefy strangers.

Citimove has driven two movers off its site, if not out of business. One, after many bad reviews, begged off. The other failed to log in for 30 days, leading to an automatic removal from the list of bidders.

To attract traffic to their site, Mr. Yang and Mr. Isenberg post notices on Craigslist and pay Google to provide links to their site. Users have rated about two dozen movers, who are jostling each other over whose reputation is best. The partners point proudly to their use of electronic safeguards to prevent phony postings from inflating (or destroying) a company's reputation. Movers are also encouraged to rebut any negative comments.

"Our service is 100 percent because we know the review is going on there," said Vivian Rodriguez, who runs RVS Moving in Queens with her husband, Ray Rodriguez. "Customers know if something gets broken we will take care of it right away and pay for it on the spot. We would rather lose $100 than lose a bunch of jobs that will bring us more than $100."

For Adam Felsenstein, who moved last summer from Westchester County to Manhattan, finding a good mover was like "shooting in the dark." He called dozens listed in the classifieds and yellow pages. One asked whether he was strong enough to handle half the couch. "I was, like, that defeats the point of hiring a mover," he said. Positive consumer feedback at Citimove steered him to movers who thoughtfully called to let him know they were stuck in traffic. Mr. Felsenstein called them "superb."

Others come to Citimove too late. Myung Joh, who moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan last summer, found an inexpensive mover, calling himself Adam, at Craigslist. The crew arrived nearly five hours late and didn't finish until after midnight. Efforts to get back some of her fee went nowhere, but she scoured the Web to see if others had similar experiences. She found her mover's phone number, attached to the name Fresh Start Movers, at Citimove. She delivered a scathing review.

"In situations like this, where you are getting services off the Internet, you kind of feel a kinship with these other online consumers," Ms. Joh said. "This shouldn't happen to people, so I'm going to tell them about it. Maybe somebody is going to decide not to use these movers."

On freewheeling Craigslist, it's almost impossible to monitor the quality of advertised services. "There is a universal need for rating and review systems that are trusted," said Craig Newmark, the site's founder, who said that a posting is removed only after being criticized by enough users.

At Craigslist this week, the same phone number recognized by Ms. Joh popped up under a different name, Allways Affordable. At that number, a man who identified himself only as Adam - before abruptly hanging up - said he didn't believe in Citimove "because you are putting all the power in the customer."

Exactly. "The point of the site is accountability," Mr. Yang said. "You don't know who these people are."