You've heard of moving scams. Unscrupulous movers low-ball your estimate then demand more money before unloading your goods from the moving truck. But there's a new kind of moving scam in town. This one takes advantage of an inexpensive, convenient service that over 40 million people who move each year in the U.S. use to update their address with the United States Postal Service.
The Postal Service charges a $1 identity verification fee to change your address online or over the phone, and nothing if you visit a local post office and fill out a hard-copy form. USPS successfully processes about 15 million online changes of address per year. But in a recent TV interview broadcast on local Wisconsin and Nebraska television affiliates, U.S. Postal Inspector Paul Krenn discussed the problem of "agent websites," a.k.a. unauthorized, third-party websites ripping off consumers $10, $20, $30 or more to change their address online.
Commercial websites acting as address-changing agents "purport to have some sort of relationship with the Postal Service, but they do not," Krenn told reporters.
How Are They Tricking You?
Enter "USPS change of address," "update address," "address change" or another similar keyword into a search engine. You'll see half a dozen paid ads of businesses using official-sounding terms such as "USPS®" -- with the registered trademark symbol. Paid ads appearing at the top of search results pages get 85 percent of clicks, according to Compete, which is how these websites get their traffic. Visit an agent website and you'll notice a similar blue and white color scheme as the official USPS website and an almost identical change of address form as the Postal Service's.
Give your address and credit card information to these companies and, according to complaints on sites like Scambook and the Better Business Bureau (BBB), you could see exorbitant charges for address-changing services as well as recurring monthly gray charges for so-called "identity theft protection." Some consumers say their mail was never forwarded, a signal that the change of address was never submitted to the Postal Service.
"This site mimics USPS's site," wrote Jackie R. on June 28, 2013 in BBB complaint comments regarding an agent website using deceitful tactics. "The service they offer is highly over-priced -- if they indeed offer an actual change of address." This particular company received an F rating per BBB's rating system. Jackie R. said the company's website, which enjoys top paid search listings in Google for address-change keywords, does not clearly state the $19.95 fee for the change of address service. In fact, you'll only notice the charge on the online payment form if you think to scroll up the page and find it when checking out. When she saw the charge on her credit card and called to ask for a refund, Jackie R. was only offered $10.
Regarding a different agent website, on August 13, 2013 an anonymous person complained about being fooled into thinking he was on USPS.com and demanded a $30 refund. "The site is the first to appear in web search and represents itself as the USPS. There is no mention of a fee or any type of charge for the service. It isn't until the payment information has been entered that it becomes apparent that it is NOT the United States Postal Service."
"It's interesting," said Krenn, "but the victims in this scam often call the Postal Service to help them resolve the issue, when unfortunately there is nothing the Postal Service can do, at that point, to stop the subscription charges or correct the error."
What? It's Legitimate? Yes. Here's Why.
Allowing for third-party address-changing agents is actually an important, legitimate part of the USPS online change of address. Here's why: For those who cannot or do not want to change their address themselves, such as an ill or deceased loved one, anyone who does not have a credit card, etc., "agents" such as those with power of attorney, adult children or parents can change the address on their behalf. In all cases -- except, of course, the deceased -- the consumer knows an agent is changing his address for him; any associated charges are transparent.
On the other hand, the companies under scrutiny make their revenue by tricking unsuspecting consumers into believing they're actually on the official USPS website, changing their address themselves. To cover their tails, their legal and privacy policies -- in tiny, light-gray font often located at the bottom of the page -- inform you that the service for which you are being charged $10-30 is actually a $1 identity verification fee on the official Postal site.
You're juggling a thousand balls when you move. Double-checking URLs and reading inconspicuous privacy policies when changing your address isn't your top priority. But there are ways to protect yourself.
How to Avoid This Scam
Take these precautions:
1. Only change your address at the official, bona-fide, real-deal U.S. Postal Service change-of-address website, MoversGuide.USPS.com.
2. Don't submit your credit card information online unless the company has a good reputation and you're absolutely sure what you're being charged for.
3. Check your monthly credit card statements for gray charges; contact any company submitting unapproved charges immediately.
Read more about the benefits of the USPS online change of address at MyMove.com.
Were you charged more than $1 to change your address? Share your story in the comments. You can also report the incident on BBB.org and contact the U.S. Postal Inspectors at postalinspectors.uspis.gov or 877-876-2455.
Follow Carolyn McKibbin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mymovecom