Industry Canada wants to tighten the rules for moving companies after a deluge of complaints from consumers who say they've been ripped off by crooked operators.
Armed with a cellphone and a Kijiji or Craigslist ad on the Internet, scam artists are preying on Canadians looking for cheap moving help, says the department.
"Complaints include holding furniture hostage at the destination until consumers pay more than the original estimate and producing new hidden costs such as packaging," says an internal document.
"In some cases, the belongings are not delivered but are dumped or remain in warehouses and storage facilities. Consumers in this market are particularly vulnerable to such practices because of the ability of movers to confiscate or ransom their belongings."
The Consumer Measures Committee, a federal-provincial group run by Industry Canada, launched a project last July to better monitor the household moving sector by analyzing consumer complaints.
"This work is in the very early stages of development and findings are not yet available," department spokesman Michael Hammond said.
Regulation of the moving sector is largely a provincial responsibility, even though some moves cross provincial boundaries. Eight provinces have highway traffic legislation that governs the household-goods moving trade, with Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador the exceptions.
Many provinces also have consumer protection laws, as does the federal government.
But industry players contacted by the committee in the last few months say officials want to end that patchwork coverage by harmonizing laws, regulations and practices across the country.
The 2006 census of Canada found that 1.2 million households had moved in the last five years. Some estimates say Canadians change addresses an average of 13 times through their lifetimes.
And the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus says complaints about movers were No. 7 on its Top 10 list of consumer beefs in 2009. Just over half of the 636 formal complaints about moving firms last year were settled.
An Industry Canada briefing note, obtained under the Access to Information Act, suggests about one of every four moves generates a consumer complaint.
The head of Canada's largest industry group, the Canadian Association of Movers, supports harmonization but says the best protection for consumers is education.
"You have people having all their life possessions destroyed, stolen, rifled through, held for ransom, overcharged," president John Levi said in an interview from the group's Mississauga, Ont., headquarters.
But even with tougher regulations "there's no government agency out there that can help you in a timely fashion."
Consumers are understandably intimidated by large men suddenly demanding more cash before unloading the truck,
"There's sufficient legislation and regulation in place — if it were enforced."
The best defence is to do some research, he said.
The mover's association — with about 200 members, including big operators like Atlas, Allied, Mayflower, United, North American — certifies its firms after checking their standards and reputations, and having them sign a code of ethics.
The Better Business Bureau as well as Industry Canada posts consumer checklists and advice on moving on their websites. A joint consumer tips release is also planned shortly by the movers' association and the business bureau.
Better Business Bureaus across Canada fielded almost 98,000 inquiries about moving companies last year, the second-most common query after consumer questions about roofing contractors.