When it came to hiring a moving company to transport her belongings from Los Angeles to Saratoga Springs, New York, Jennifer Graybeal didn't do her research. "I basically hired whoever was cheapest," says Graybeal, who moved with her husband in 2005.

The trouble started soon after her belongings were loaded into the moving truck. At first, Graybeal's items were slow to arrive in New York, and her calls to the moving company were rarely answered. "I just kept getting the runaround," she says. At one point, the movers said that Graybeal's items would arrive if she paid a higher fee than originally quoted. Graybeal refused.

When her items finally arrived – a week late – many were damaged. Boxes were squashed and opened. Furniture, dishes and wedding gifts were dented, broken and scratched. Chunks were missing out of her wooden headboard. "I just started crying," she says.

All told, the damage amounted to about $1,500, says Graybeal, whose letters to the company were returned unopened when she tried to file an insurance claim. But she learned an important lesson in the process: "Do better research," upfront, she says. After her nightmarish moving experience, she investigated the moving company. She quickly discovered that it wasn't accredited by an institution like the Better Business Bureau and was the target of several customer complaints, all black marks she should have learned about before hiring the team.

[See: 10 Ways to Protect Yourself From Online Fraud .]

Choosing a moving company is more difficult than, say, selecting a hair stylist or a gardener. Because many people don't move often, they're not the most informed consumers when it comes to selecting a good moving company, understanding fair pricing practices and spotting red flags.

But it is up to the consumer to do some research before embarking on a move. After all, once a moving company has every one of your belongings loaded into a truck, you're at a clear disadvantage for negotiating or complaining. So, before you even begin unspooling the first roll of bubble wrap, take these steps to avoid getting scammed by a moving company.

Do your research. There are all sorts of avenues through which consumers can investigate movers and moving companies. One easy place to start: your social network. Reach out to social media friends and followers for recommendations, experts say.

When you've identified a few potential movers, investigate them online. "Look beyond the stars or the grade, and really read the comments and details," says Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. "Look for movers that are accredited by the Better Business Bureau and are ProMover-certified by the American Moving & Storage Association."

One extra step: Make sure the company has a physical address, says Scott Michael, president and CEO for the American Moving & Storage Association, the national trade association for the professional moving industry. Look up that location on a satellite map to see whether it's a brick-and-mortar facility where you can park trucks and house moving crews. "You can also drive by their facility if you don't want to look at it online and see if it's a legitimate place," Michael says. If researching the location reveals that the operation is based out of an apartment or private home, think twice about whether that's the kind of organization you're willing trust your possessions with, Michael says.

[See: 11 Expenses Destroying Your Budget .]

Get an in-home estimate. Experts recommend getting at least three in-home estimates during which a representative for the moving company takes an inventory of your belongings and studies your home layout, noting any potential challenges, such as a tricky parking situation, which may add time to your move. This will give you a chance to vet the potential company and get a more accurate picture of the time and expense needed to move your belongings. For an in-state move, expect to pay by the hour. For interstate moves, you'll likely pay based on weight and distance.

An in-home estimate is one step Sarah Magee wishes she'd crossed off her list before embarking on her most recent move. When her movers showed up for an afternoon move, they looked disheveled and unprofessional, and claimed that the 26-foot truck they'd brought wouldn't be able to fit the belongings of her 1,000-square-foot home. It seemed fishy.

"I was told over the phone that it'd take three to four hours to move and that the contract was hourly," says Magee, who got the estimate after calling an 800-number. But inefficient movers, who at one point threatened to drive off with her belongings, and a disagreement about the price ballooned the moving time to eight hours and cost her double the quoted price. "I would definitely get in writing a solid amount that you're going to pay," says Magee, who lives in Indianapolis.

Keep a paper trail. Get any important documents, including the bill of lading, in writing, so that you can cite them if something goes awry, experts say. And never pay in cash. Using a credit card will leave a financial trail if you need to later contest a charge.

[See: Basic Money Lessons You (Probably) Missed in High School .]

Look into insurance. If the worst happens, make sure that your belongings are covered by insurance . Basic coverage from the mover, offered at no extra cost, is called released value protection and typically covers your belongings for 60 cents per pound. It's cheap, but it may not cover the full value of a light but pricey item, such as a flat-screen TV. Full value protection from the moving company may be added to the cost upfront and can cover the full cost to replace and repair your damaged items. Insurance from an independent third-party company is also an option for concerned movers.

And don't forget to check your current insurance policies, experts say. "It is worth checking with your homeowners or renters insurance to see if they provide coverage; some of them do, depending on the type of policy," Michael says.

Be inquisitive. If something doesn't make sense, ask questions . A reputable moving company should be able to give you good answers. A representative who refuses to answer questions – or gives you fishy responses – might be a scammer. Steer clear.

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Raymond Mitchell, Author

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