Complaints against moving companies are on the rise in Canada, but there are few regulations to protect consumers, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.

From hidden fees to threats to dump or hold furniture, a hidden camera investigation reveals the tactics that fly-by-night companies use to scam customers on moving day.

And attempts to license movers in Toronto have been unsuccessful, offering people little recourse against shady operators.

“Rogue movers really have become more of a problem,” says Jim Carney, a director on the board of the Canadian Association of Movers.

Full episode

Watch Marketplace's latest episode, Movin’ Day Showdown, on Friday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m ET (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador).

“Anybody who has any savvy can make themselves look awesome on a web site. They don’t even have to have a truck; they can go rent a truck and then go ahead and gouge the customer.”

Marketplace investigation reveals shady company tactics

Responding to complaints from viewers, Marketplace wired a house in downtown Toronto with hidden cameras and called a mover to document how that company -- and others like it -- scam Canadians on moving day.

The Marketplace investigation focused on one company, Husky Movers, after tracking complaints against the business going back several years.

Husky advertises widely online, promising “no hidden charges” and “reliable, trustworthy and dependable service.”

Despite these claims, several consumers told Marketplace that they were charged fees that hadn’t been previously discussed, and that their bills were hundreds of dollars more than the original quote.

Extra charges included fees for stairs, heavy items and a “long walk.” The charges were only disclosed in a contract that was produced to customers on the day of the move.

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Marketplace wired a house in downtown Toronto with hidden cameras and called a moving company to document its tactics. (CBC)

Customers also said that they were asked to pay a large cash deposit before the move would begin, and Husky Movers damaged their belongings and threatened to dump furniture outside.

“I got robbed right in broad daylight. And the worst thing is I called them to come to my house and rob me,” one customer told Marketplace, after he was charged additional fees and his belongings were damaged in the move.

Husky’s tactics were “far worse than I had ever anticipated,” Carney told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington. The full investigation, Movin’ Day Showdown, airs Friday at 8pm (8:30 in NT).

Complaints on the rise

Problems with moving companies have long plagued Canadians, but the number of complaints has been increasing, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

In the past 12 months, there have been more than 750 complaints to the BBB, a 13 per cent rise over the previous year. So far in 2013, there have been more than 550 complaints, a 36 per cent increase from the the same period two years ago.

Overall, moving is the fifth most complained about industry at the BBB.

Southern Ontario leads the country for problems, with almost a third of the country’s complaints. The Vancouver area also sees significant problems, with 192 complaints during the last 12 months. Alberta BBB offices also see large numbers of complaints coming into the Calgary and Edmonton offices.

Some rogue moving companies easily dodge their bad reputation. Husky Movers, the focus of the Marketplace investigation, uses different or unclear company names and multiple phone numbers in online advertisements.

Some customers who want to complain realize too late that they don’t know the name of the company, its address or the full name of company representatives.

Regulatory attempts stalled

In 2010, a Toronto police investigation called Project Overhaul shut down a ring of moving companies that “allegedly extorted and intimidated their clients into paying exorbitant fees to move their belongings,” according to a police press release about the case.

But regulatory proposals aimed at cleaning up the industry have stalled. An attempt by Toronto city council to license movers was unsuccessful when the province refused to amend the City of Toronto Act to allow for the program.

A 2011 report from the city’s Licensing and Standards Committee recommended licensing to protect consumers from “unfair and fraudulent business practices.”

The report states that several companies in Toronto had been under police investigation in recent years and “were alleged to have threatened to dump clients' furniture if they refused to pay additional fees that were not agreed upon at the time of hire. In addition, customers were also misled into signing unfavourable contracts.”

“The licensing of moving companies will help to protect consumers from these practices by providing a regulatory regime that sets out standards of practice and provides a framework for dealing with complaints,” the report states. The proposed program would have come at no cost to the city.

Most American states have some kind of regulatory oversight specific to moving companies, according to the American Moving and Storage Association.

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Jim Carney, director on the board of the Canadian Association of Movers, said "rogue movers" have become a problem. (CBC)

State regulations include licensing and a number of provisions including rules requiring moving companies to disclose their company name, address and state licence number in all advertising, letterhead and on their trucks.

Moving companies in Canada don’t need a special licence to operate.

Despite council support, the province of Ontario denied Toronto’s request in June 2012. According to the city, the decision cited overlap with the Ministry of Consumer Protection, which is responsible for consumer complaints about businesses, including moving companies.

Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker supported the city’s proposal.

“I was very insistent that this go forward,” he said.

“The letter we got back from the province was basically a form letter,” De Baeremaeker said. “So the province has done nothing. Their response was ‘Thank you, but we’re busy.’” De Baeremaeker says he plans to reopen the issue with the province.

Licensing, he argues, would prevent people from being scammed, whereas the ministry can only collect complaints after a problem has already occurred.

“If we can protect people before they’re victimized, that’s much better than letting it be the wild west out there, let any guy in a van come to your house and take your belongings and your wedding photos and try to threaten you. That’s wrong.”

Jim Carney, who is also president and CEO of Rawlinson Moving and Storage, supports licensing, but warns that shady operators may be difficult to police.

“And rogue movers will take that as a joke if there’s no policing going on,” he said.

“So they get fined, and then what? They open up a new cell number and away they go under a different name. It’s just a cat-and-mouse game.”