Taken for a Ride
Instead it became her nightmare. The movers she hired to take her things from Atlanta to Chicago guaranteed she wouldn't pay more than $1,742 for the job but allegedly demanded $2,556 in cash once they arrived at her new home. When she couldn't pay, they drove off with her belongings, which she wouldn't see for another three months. In the meantime the movers' fees soared to more than $5,000. What she considers the hijacking of her possessions was, she would later discover, an increasingly common practice in the moving industry—one she's going to unusual lengths to stop. Chen, an attorney, is suing the parent company of her movers, then-called Mayflower Transit, Inc., under the RICO Act—federal racketeering laws originally intended for mobsters (the trial date is not yet set). "I don't know how they sleep at night," Chen says of the people who ruined her adventure in 1999. "They're heartless."
Many would agree. Reports of similar complaints have surged since 1995, when Congress deregulated the moving and storage industry. The Better Business Bureau has seen a 144 percent increase in the number of complaints against movers in recent years, from 3,736 in 1997 to 9,116 in 2002. At the same time, the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has only three full-time investigators to handle the thousands of complaints the DOT receives each year. "Crooks posing as movers have determined there are easy pickin's because there are no federal cops out there," says Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association. "We have more horror stories than we've had in a long time."
Most of the complaints describe classic bait-and-switch schemes: Burly moving men demand as much as four times the quoted price in cash and, aware that police can't get involved in contract disputes, hold the belongings hostage until they wear the clients out and get their money (in fact, federal law prohibits movers from seizing and keeping possessions). Angie Chen claims she was given only a few hours to come up with the extra cash, which the movers claimed was a fee for unloading on an unusually narrow street. "My ATM was maxed out," says Chen, who did manage to raise $1,000, not enough to satisfy the movers (a federal judge in Chicago finally ordered them to return her belongings). "The customer has to tell us up-front if there are circumstances [like a narrow street]," Mayflower rep Carl Walter says in the company's defense. "If we had known, we could have priced accordingly."
James Balderrama's 2001 move from San Diego to Orlando had more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller. Balderrama, 41, a mortgage broker, and his wife, Gina, 38, accepted a quote of $4,300 from AAA. Van Lines, but six hours into the move the driver told Balderrama there was a problem. "He said, 'You have a lot more stuff than we estimated, and we have to open a second contract,' " recalls Balderrama. The next day a dispatcher called to demand $8,500 in cash—on top of the $3,050 deposit already paid. "He said, 'Listen, you blankety-blank, we've got your stuff and you're gonna pay us,' " says Balderrama, who agreed to ante up just to get the movers there. When they finally arrived at his new home two days behind schedule, Balderrama faced them down on his front lawn. "Our neighbors were like, 'Who's the new guy and why is he about to kill someone?' " he says. "This was a war now and I wanted my stuff."
While Balderrama tangled with the movers, his wife blocked their truck with her car. But the police officer they summoned ordered her to move and let the truck go. Ready to throw in the towel a week later, the couple learned AAA now wanted $12,000 in cash. After several agencies and lawyers told Balderrama they couldn't help, a state representative advised him to get a writ of replevin—essentially a search warrant for citizens. The Balderramas then cooked up their own ruse: They agreed to pay the $12,000 if AAA told them where their belongings were stored. Once they found out, Balderrama drove overnight to an Atlanta storage facility, arranged to present his writ to a deputy armed with bolt cutters and finally reclaimed his family's things. "It was better than winning the lottery," says Balderrama, who later agreed to help FBI agents conducting Operation Stow Biz, a sting that has resulted in criminal charges against 16 Florida moving companies, including AAA The criminal case against AAA has stalled in U.S. district court in Fort Lauderdale because the company's registered agent fled after posting bond.
Balderrama's case shows there are ways to battle rogue movers once a scam is under way (see box). But most victims are no match for unscrupulous operators. Steve Peeler, 35, and his wife, Susie, 34, took the lowest of four bids—$5,520—for their move from Seattle to Jupiter, Fla., in the fall of 2002. Once the Peelers' belongings were on the truck, the subcontractor of Let's Move It Right, the company they'd picked, upped the price to $15,900. "I got a call on Christmas Eve saying they were going to auction our stuff off unless we paid," says Steve, a baseball groundskeeper and the father of three, including a son born days into the move. "I've never felt more helpless." Dealing with a mysterious driver they knew only as Ezzie, the Peelers had to sleep on air mattresses and didn't see their possessions for seven months. Finally a congressman they knew through a colleague helped get their things released, though they still had to pay $6,000 to ship them to Florida. The Peelers eventually sued and won more than $17,000 in costs and damages, but they doubt that they'll ever recover the money since the moving company owner has vanished. "It's like knowing someone is going to break into your house and take everything you own, and no one can help," says Susie. "It takes away the part of you that's trusting."
Many victims decide to follow the advice often given by law officers—pay now, sue the movers later. But it's hardly practical, since rogue movers tend to change their names, making them hard to track down. They also often farm jobs out to different companies based in other states. "Even if I wanted to go to small claims court, I'd have to go to Florida to do it," says Tim Walker, 34, a computer science student whose $1,869 quote from America's Best Movers for Virginia-to-Nevada move turned into a $5,012 final bill (a lawyer for the company, now inactive, did not comment on the case). Making matters worse, most lawyers are reluctant to sue rogue movers because of an amendment limiting awards to the amount of the overcharge. "It doesn't make financial sense for an attorney to take on one of these cases," says Walker, who now crusades against industry fraud and runs a Web site cataloguing scams and blacklisting companies. "Consumers should have rights, and right now they don't."
Angie Chen, who did take on the moving industry, is charging Mayflower with breach of contract, mail and wire fraud, theft and extortion; she is seeking compensation for emotional distress as well as loss of property. When the movers drove away with her boxes after she failed to pay them, "I felt like my soul had left my body," she says, wiping away tears at the memory. But now, "working on the case has made me a better lawyer. I've found a resolve I didn't know I had. I understand I don't have to be cowed by these people anymore."
By Alex Tresniowski. Shia Kapos and Lauren Comander in Chicago, Kristin Harmel and Siobhan Morrissey in Miami and Angie Isidro Bresnahan in Washington, D.C.
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