Turns out some of those horror stories of movers hijacking your stuff and holding it for ransom aren’t urban legend.
On Tuesday, the federal Department of Transportation announced that it had shut down five moving companies, three based in South Florida, for fraud that included holding people’s belongings hostage unless they were paid extra fees sometimes totaling thousands of dollars.
“It’s extortion,” said Anne S. Ferro, administrator at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees interstate moving companies on behalf of consumers. “The individual homeowner or renter has agreed for the company to pick up their personal property and belongings, sometimes a lifetime of memories, and the company refuses to deliver the goods. We call it holding the customer’s goods hostage.”
Prohibited from operating for a least one year are Allegiant Van Lines, of Davie; Northern Van Lines of Cooper City; and Northeastern Vanlines of Pembroke Pines, and another moving company in South Carolina. They are all owned by Christopher Michalski of South Carolina. Allegiant was fined $88,000, and the other three were fined a total of $31,000.
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Another company, Maryland-based Direct Movers, was also suspended for a year for refusing to turn over records related to the investigation.
The Moving Fraud Task Force from Ferro’s agency began investigating in August, prompted by more than 100 complaints against the three Florida movers filed on the National Consumer Complaint Database.
This kind of scam has a history in South Florida: In 2003 and 2004, employees and owners of three Broward moving companies were found guilty of extorting millions of dollars from hundreds of people, packing up their things and then demanding suddenly inflated sums for their return.
One of Allegiant’s victims was Mary Muniz, 53, who called Allegiant in May as she, her husband, and two disabled brothers were preparing to move from Covington, Wash., to Austin, Texas. Muniz says she signed a contract with Allegiant for $3,500, only to have the movers, on arriving, tell her it would be $7,000. “I had already sold my home and I had to be out that day; I had no choice,” Muniz said Tuesday. When the movers arrived, they demanded $300 in cash to unload the truck. A table top, armoire and other things were missing, pictures were broken. Her calls to Allegiant were never returned. “It was a horrible experience,” she says.
Another victim was Chad Gillan, 37, a structural engineer who last July was preparing to move from Aurora, Colo., to Jacksonville with his wife and their three young children so he could start work with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Gillan said he agreed to pay Allegiant $8,800 to move their home, plus $1,000 for replacement insurance. Although the small rental van that showed up was not the promised company moving truck, Gillan, who had already paid $4,000 and was due to start work, had no time to find a new mover. He regretted his decision after Allegiant began calling and demanding another $1,200. Although the company eventually delivered his things, many items were broken or missing — and despite the insurance, never replaced. His calls and emails went unanswered.
Muniz and Gillan both made mistakes that are common to victims of moving company fraud, such as accepting an estimate without having the company do a physical inventory, and paying a deposit, says Ferro.
“There are simple things consumers can do to make sure they don’t become victims,” says Ferro. She urged people to check her agency’s website, protectyourmove.gov, for a list of warning signs, like demands to sign blank contracts or paying a deposit, and to file complaints. “The Internet has made it very easy for a company bent on defrauding people to look reputable — ‘I’m convenient, give me a deposit, I’ll come pick up your stuff.’ It sounds easy.”