Sofas Held Hostage: Fraudulent Movers Ransom, Steal Belongings

PHOTO: Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, speaks during a House Small Business Subcommittee hearing in Washington, on Nov. 21, 2013.

The fact the federal government keeps a "10 Most Wanted" list made up entirely of moving men might seem funny to you. But to Reana Kovalcik, though, it's no laughing matter.

Kovalcik, 29, testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during hearings into the problem of moving companies holding customers' belongings hostage. Anne Ferro, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator, has a one-word description for that practice: "extortion."

In Kovalcik's harrowing testimony, she explained how in 2010 she and her boyfriend hired what they believed to be a reputable mover to get their household goods from Chicago to New York City.

They shopped online, looking for the best deal. "Price was the most important factor," she testified. They got quotes from four companies. One, Worldwide Van Lines, was happy to give them a lowball quote ($898) without ever coming to their house to take a look at their belongings, according to Kovalcik.

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Worldwide wanted an upfront deposit ($198.95), which the couple paid.

On moving day, when the van arrived five hours late, it had a different name on it -- Able Moving. So, the couple called Worldwide and were told that Worldwide was just the agent, according to Kovalcki's statement. The actual move would be done by Able.

Kovalcik said that after that, "Things began to fall apart."

When the truck failed to show up in New York on the contracted date, they called Able and complained. Able told them they would have to pay another $2,000 for, among other things, "packing materials," before they'd see their stuff, Kovalcik said.

When the movers arrived, Kovalcik's boyfriend called the police. Before the police arrived, the van sped off.

A car chase and other drama followed, without the couple recovering their goods. Before Able eventually told them where they could find their stuff (a public storage facility in New Jersey), Kovalcik said she had had to enlist the aid of the New York and Chicago police departments, a Chicago alderman, and the Chicago Department of Business and Consumer Affairs.

Their goods, when they found them, "had been smashed; almost all our furniture had been destroyed." Their most expensive possessions had been stolen. The damage, she testified, totaled about $10,000.

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has logged thousands of consumer complaints a year about fraudulent movers since 2002. The number peaked at about 3,600 in 2005 and last year was 3,120.

Ferro called some of the incidents horrific. "When it goes bad," she said, referring to people who unknowingly hire rogue movers, "It's horrible." The problem of moving fraud has been made worse by the Internet, she noted.

"When we have to move," she told ABC News, "we're at our most vulnerable. Maybe someone is changing jobs. Maybe they've had a family trauma." The customer is trying to find what looks like the best deal with the least effort, so they go online and pick a mover based on what they see there," without doing any further due diligence. Even if the deal is too good to be true, Ferro said, "We think okay."

The Department of Transportation, of which FMCSA is a part, fights fraud several ways. Through its Inspector General's office, it maintains a "Most Wanted" list of criminals who have perpetrated transportation crimes. The first ten on that list include eight who are wanted for "Fraud Involving Moving Company."

FMCSA itself, Ferro said, takes a two-pronged attack: "We shut down the worst, and we make sure the consumer has an easy checklist" to help them tell honest movers from possible scam artists.

When consumers log complaints about a mover, FMCSA sends investigators. Depending on what they find, the mover may be fined or put out of business. In July, for example, it shut down Able Moving -- the business that Rena Kovalcik had hired.

Able, according to FMCSA, had its operating authority suspended for holding customers' shipments hostage and was assessed civil penalties totaling $20,000. Efforts by ABC News to contact the company for comment were not successful.

As for Worldwide Van Lines, the FMCSA website shows that nine customers filed hostage complaints in 2010, the same year Kovalcik used them. There were no hostage complaints against the company filed for 2013. Operations manager Kevin Lyoe told ABC News that his company brokers some 7,000 moves a year, and that nine hostage complaints a year should be viewed in that context.

"If customers call us," Lyoe said, "We get involved. We don't tolerate that kind of behavior." Of companies such as Able, he said, "We cut them off if we get complaints, and we make sure to get the DOT involved."

As for Kovalcik's not having known she was hiring a broker (rather than a mover) when she hired Worldwide, Lyoe said the contract would have made it plain that Worldwide was a broker.

FMCSA recently shut down five movers in one week -- three in Florida, one in Maryland, and another in South Carolina.

The administration also tries to educate consumers. Its website lists five "red flags" that indicate a mover may not be legit. They include:

The mover doesn't do an onsite inspection of the customer's belongings, but instead offers a lowball estimate, sight-unseen.

The mover demands cash or a large deposit upfront.

On moving day, a generic rental truck arrives, rather than a company-owned and marked fleet truck.

Offices and warehouse are in poor condition or nonexistent.

The mover's telephone is answered with a generic "Movers" or "Moving Company," rather than with a company name.

John Bisney, spokesman for the American Moving & Storage Association, which represents about 4,100 movers nationwide, said consumers also get a potential mover's ID number, assigned to it by the Department of Transportation. On FMCSA's website and on the website for his own association, consumers can run a search using that number to see if the mover has a record of complaints -- and for what.

Bisney said "rogue" or "bandit" movers give the entire industry a black eye. Legitimate movers have as great an interest as do consumers, he said, in seeing them put out of business.

Lyoe agreed: "There're a lot of shady companies out there."

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