They called it “Operation Mother’s Attic.” The state Attorney General’s Office and state Division of Consumer Affairs launched an undercover sting targeting moving companies suspected of operating without licenses and caught 29 movers in the net. Acting Consumer Affairs Director Paul Rodriguez explained it to correspondent Briana Vannozzi.
Vannozzi: Take us inside the sting. How did the state actually bust these unlicensed moving companies?
Rodriguez: At the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, we scheduled moving companies to come to a house in Montville, New Jersey. When the moving companies arrived, unbeknown to them, were waiting the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, the New Jersey State Police, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Morris County Sherriff’s Office and the local police to come in, look at whether or not they were registered with the state as required by law, whether the vehicles that they were using were safe and whether or not the vehicles were registered or they themselves had a driver’s license, or, in some cases as we found, a warrant for their arrest.
Vannozzi: So instead of meeting a friendly homeowner, they found you guys. What were people reporting? What types of scams were they reporting?
Rodriguez: At the division we get over a hundred complaints a year of people who are being taken advantage of.
Vannozzi: In what ways?
Rodriguez: One of the most common scams we see is, we get calls for hostage loads. Just imagine strangers come to your home, whenever we move strangers come to our home, pack up all of our worldly belongings, take them away and hope that they’re there when we get to the other side. Hostage load is when you get there, this is unfortunately all too common, and they’ll say, all right everything is safely outside, but now you need to give us another $1,000, $5,000 before we give it to you above what we already agreed to.
Vannozzi: So they’re actually holding the property hostage for more money.
Rodriguez: That’s right. That’s right. Other things that we’ll see are, unfortunately, sometimes tragically, there are accidents with the moving vehicles themselves. If they’re unlicensed, they’re much less likely to have the adequate insurance. And if all of your goods are sadly destroyed and there’s not adequate insurance to pay for it, then you may never be able to get the money back. The other thing, unfortunately, that we’ll see is particularly with the unlicensed movers is they might just disappear with your goods — never see them again. If they’re licensed with us, we have their name, we have their address, we can go after them. Otherwise it can be a real challenge to find them.
Vannozzi: These movers were slapped with a fine, with other violations, but they’re not shut down. What is the state doing to put their practices to an end?
Rodriguez: If they are unlicensed, unfortunately the statutory cap that we can give them is a $2,500 fine. That may not seem like a lot for the first time, but they know that we will be out there looking for them again. One of these movers was a repeat offender. There’s a $5,000 fine then.
Vannozzi: What’s stopping them from reopening as a shell — same movers, same people, different name?
Rodriguez: That’s a real challenge, and the best thing that we can do is to keep on going after them, operating more stings like this, and also we respond to every consumer complaint and track it down.
Vannozzi: So you rely on consumers letting you know that there are unscrupulous practices going on. What can consumers look for? Are there red flags?
Rodriguez: Most important thing to do is to check with the division to make sure that the mover that you’re considering using is licensed. You can go to our website or you can give us a call. Or, what you can do, in addition to making sure they’re licensed, you want to get a written estimate before they actually pick up your goods that way you have something in writing when they want to ask for more at the end.
Vannozzi: Can you check that they have that cargo insurance, that liability? Is there a way to check that, too?
Rodriguez: As long as they’re licensed with us, you can be assured that their vehicles are registered and they have proper insurance.
Vannozzi: So they can check with you. What other recourse does a consumer have if they end up dealing with one of these companies?
Rodriguez: You should contact us right away. First of all, you only have 90 days, if they damage your goods, for example. So contact us immediately as soon as you find out something is missing or damaged, and certainly if they’re holding goods hostage call us immediately.
Vannozzi: Is there someone that can be sent out if they do have the goods hostage?
Rodriguez: Yes, we will investigate immediately. We have investigators on hand.