Fraudulent movers have become a well-known adversary throughout the industry of household goods moving, with employees in the business referring to these criminals as “rogue operators.” These fake movers target customers by creating fraudulent moving websites touting inexplicably low overall moving rates.
After customers fall prey to these cheaper-than-normal costs, the “moving van” will tell them that they will be holding their belongings hostage until the customers pay a high fee–often as high as thousands of dollars more than they ever agreed to.
“Rogue operators are the largest threat to the legitimate household goods industry and one of our top issues that we are working on with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Capitol Hill,” explained the director of American Trucking Associations’ Moving and Storage Conference, Katie McMichael.
The biggest strategy of these thieves is to find vulnerable people who are looking to save a quick buck in their moving expenses, which makes them easy targets for these kinds of website scams. “Through deceptive practices, these illegal entities force customers into positions and extort large sums of money to be reunited with their belongings,” she said. “The moving community strongly condemns these bad actors and we are working to address this growing problem.”
Additionally, many of these victims may not be aware of the federal regulations currently in place which prohibit any carrier from raising the costs that were already agreed upon in advance by both the carrier and the customer. Unless both parties are willing to negotiate on a new price for moving costs, the previously agreed-upon charge, which would have been decided and put into writing before any work began, would be legally binding.
“The reason this has come to the forefront in recent years is because consumers use the internet for anything now,” said McMichael.
Regardless of legalities, these scams take place quite often–and on a massive scale. A Florida-based fraudulent operation has been one of the biggest of these scams to take place in recent years, in which the fake movers stole around $3.5 million total from 1,800 customers between the years of 2013 and 2018. According to a report made by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, the rogue operators would charge customers for moving household goods over a larger distance of cubic feet than they actually traveled, and many items would not even be delivered at all.
The scam’s two leaders, Andrey Shuklin and Seth Nezat have pleaded guilty for conspiring within a “racketeering enterprise” that aimed to defraud as many American individuals as it could, and more than a dozen other individuals who helped in these crimes have also pleaded guilty or been charged.
A federal grand jury in the Southern District of Ohio concluded in its indictment that these scammers had created at least 10 different fake moving companies over the last five years, and many individuals who participated in these crimes did so under various fake names.
Some of those who pleaded guilty have, according to the indictment,
“coordinated and directed lower-level employees, members, and [associates] of the affiliated companies,” and many also were said to have threatened to “injure another person who interfered with the moving enterprises’s purposes.”
Sometimes, these kinds of fake companies will use company names associated with legitimate moving companies, causing customers to end up accusing the real businesses of these crimes when they’ll likely have no knowledge of what has transpired.
“To the legitimate moving industry, the impact is when people have a bad move [and] they sometimes will talk to news outlets,” said McMichael. “It just puts a stain on the moving industry overall because people don’t know how to separate a rogue operator from a legitimate operator.”
Typically, though, customers will just opt to pay the unjust additional charges to avoid any issues, and the scam isn’t ever reported to any authorities. Of course, this is what scammers hope for, but they’ve also become diligent about circumventing the consequences of suspicion.
According to McMichael, these most recent scammers worked throughout the states of Florida, New York, and New Jersey, and would usually shut down their websites immediately as soon as any knowledge of their criminal activity was suspected.
“This cycle continues,” she said. “You can see how long they will do this–and get away with it–because it’s hard to catch them. There needs to be a lot of cooperation between federal, state, and local authorities [to solve this issue].”