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Call Kurtis Investigation: Rogue Movers

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Eight-time Emmy Award winner Kurtis Ming is CBS13's consumer...
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One team of producers, two days gathering goods, junk, and personal belongings, and two three-bedroom homes — why?

“Some fool old woman like me. They, I was a victim that day” remembers Sunnyu Vito of Fairfield.

“$2,200 worth of boxes, there’s no way” says Kim Salas of Roseville.

So, why you may ask?

To catch on-camera what many customers, even police, believe is a corrupt moving company, one that’s victimized people like Vito.

“It did a lot of damage to me.”

And like Kim Salas.

“I just feel very frustrated, like I’m stuck.”

Both were quoted a price for a move, then forced to pay thousands more to get their belongings off the truck.

Vito remembers them saying “‘you pay now or we don’t unload.’ as simple as that.”

Holding goods hostage is fraudulent, illegal.

One of the more notorious operations: San Jose company “Better Way 2 Move.”

It also went by the name “BMS Bekins” though it’s not an authorized Bekins agent.

They’re the same movers which overcharged Kim and Sunnyu; and we confronted them about it two and half years ago.

“We’re not out there, we’re not pirates trying to get our customers, you know, for their money” said a representative who went by the name Joey S.

Now, they’re operating under the name “Stevens Move”, and they have a similar website which re-directed us from their old one.

And the complaints keep coming, 111 to the Better Business Bureau in the last three years.

We wanted to see first hand how they operate.

“Hi there, I’m wondering about getting a price on a move” says CBS13 producer Brei, while on the phone with Stevens arranging a move.

Minutes later they quote her a price: “328? Wow, that’s pretty good” she tells him.

A week later Stevens Move arrives at a home in Elk Grove; the sting is set.

Inside, Brei poses as the homeowner; intern Rhoni is there with her.

Brei meets with Alex from Stevens Move and right from the start there’s suspicion just by looking at their truck.

“Oh are you guys with Bekins? Yeah, it’s… I didn’t know that. Uh, we bought this truck… Oh, you’re not Bekins. Yeah, we just bought this truck” goes the exchange.

But the contract form Alex uses says “United Van Lines” — it doesn’t show the price quoted over the phone, or what’s included in the cost.

But he requires Brei to sign the blank contract anyway, so that “…my guys can start working.”

We had already packed all but a few odds and ends.

The movers wrapped some things for protection: the TV, couch, and fridge in the garage.

All they had to do was load it up, which to took less than an hour.

“I need you to initial we finished 10:30 loading” Alex tells her.

It’s a 26 mile drive to our destination, a house in North Highlands; and we’re waiting for them.

The movers wait outside while Alex goes inside to break the news that he’s raising the price of Brei’s short move.

“So what is my grand total? Your total is $638.60 but if you pay me cash it’s going to be $44 less.”

And that doubled our initial quote.

Could shorten this exchange for time if needed?

“So I got charged for the picture box and I got charged $100 just to cut it up and pack it on there? Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that seems like a lot.”

“…What, if I can’t pay this today what do you guys do, I mean… We take your stuff… and so basically they’re gonna hold my stuff hostage?”

That’s our cue.

We approach the front door to the house, walk in, and take an immediate left into the kitchen where Brei and Alex are talking; Alex sees the camera and tries to hide his face with his arm.

“…Why am I on camera? Alex, I’m Kurtis Ming from CBS13. “

“…[Alex] when did $328 become $638 for a move? Can you answer that?”

Alex is walking back to the truck and motions to his three movers who are lounging on the driveway.

“Close everything up” he tells them. “This is all of our stuff, what are you going to do with it? Is this your m.o. — you make people sign blank contracts and then you rip them off when you get to their house?”

A truck loaded with our belongings and Alex is in no mood to answer questions.

“…Alex, why won’t you talk with me? How are you even operating? You have a license that’s been revoked by the state, and what’s this logo on the side of the truck – bekins? You guys aren’t Bekins. How could you be using that logo?”

The truck with that logo and old license plates once belonged to Gary Wolfe.

“They’re clearly breaking the law” he says.

Wolfe is an authorized Bekins agent in Burlingame.

He sold that truck to the operators of Stevens Move three years ago.

As part of the agreement, he says the buyers were supposed to remove the Bekins logo.

“We’ve had numerous customer complaints, people calling us saying where’s our furniture… It’s sad, we’ve had people on the phone crying once they find out it’s not us, it’s not a reputable company. I mean there’s literally people they’ve been crying.”

Like him, we’ve tried for 21/2 years to get the California Public Utilities Commission, the moving industry regulator, to help our consumers, and help us understand what’s going on.

We struggled to get calls or emails returned, and were told “no” when we asked multiple times for an on-camera interview.

With so many victims, and this company still operating, we weren’t going to take “no” for an answer.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen.”

Our producer, Shawn, crashed a commission meeting this month, speaking during time dedicated for public comment.

“…considering I can’t get anyone to comment on this, this video right here is that video I was telling you about.”

Commission president Michael Peevey eventually conceded.

He spoke directly to his director of the division of Consumer Protection & Safety, who was sitting in the gallery near the front row.

“…Mr. Clark would you just talk to the gentleman for a minute or two outside, I appreciate it, sure.”

“Bait and switch, reprehensible, fraud, theft” were some of the words Mr. Clark used to describe the actions of companies like Stevens.

It’s Richard Clark’s job to protect consumers from unscrupulous moving companies.

He told us he didn’t know that we were trying to get his agency to speak with us.

Mr. Clark told us his office had revoked the licenses of Better Way 2 Move, BMS Bekins, and Stevens Move.

It’s also fined them, and disconnected their phone numbers.

But we told him the company simply changes its name, and gets back in business.

In fact, we’ve confirmed nearly twenty different names under which this company has operated.

Still, Clark insists its enforcement program is effective.

“It’s very difficult to keep up with folks who engage in that sort of activity but there are ways to do it. It’s very resource intensive.”

Clark’s division has eight investigators responsible for the entire state of California.

So it begs the question: is it enough to stop movers like these from ripping off consumers?

“If it wasn’t enough we’d ask for more.”

As we watch the moving truck leave with all of our belongings inside, you be the judge – should they ask for more?

Kurtis Ming continues to pepper Alex with questions as they drive off down the road — “…you got nothing to say? You just gonna take off down the road with all of our stuff?”

We never did get our stuff back.

We watched Alex take the truck to a North Highlands storage facility where he unloaded the goods and left them.

San Jose police believe many of those rogue movers are tied to organized crime.

They bring in workers from Eastern Europe to keep the operation going; and those who aren’t cut-throat enough are sent back.

The businesses assume names similar to reputable, well-established companies, giving them an appearance of credibility, making it easier to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers.

Despite allegations of theft and fraud no criminal charges have been filed against the operators of Stevens Move, whose parent company is CHS Transporation.

They’ve never responded to our phone calls.

As for the PUC, here are the actions they’ve taken against the company highlighted in this story:

1. CHS Transportation, Inc. (MTR 190378 – Revoked 3/30/10) – Eran Bar – President
a. Business names:
• We Are Moving Relocations
• We Are Moving & Storage
• Better Way 2 Move Moving & Storage
• Stevens Moving
• Stevens Relocation
• Express Moving & Storage
• BMS Relocation Services
• BMS Bekins
• Better Way To Move
• Better Way 2 Move
b. Enforcement actions:
• February 2010 – administrative citation fine – $2,500. Ordered to pay restitution of $12,942.73 to 15 consumers.
• May 2010 – court order obtained to disconnect 3 telephone numbers

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, rogue moving companies typically work like this: Without ever visiting your home or seeing the goods you want moved, they give a low-ball estimate over the phone or Internet. Once your goods are on their truck, they demand more money before they’ll deliver or unload them. They hold your goods hostage and force you to pay more-sometimes much more than you thought you had agreed to-if you want your possessions back.

Your best defense is to recognize a rogue mover before they have your goods. Here are the “red flags” to look out for:

* The mover doesn’t offer or agree to an on-site inspection of your household goods and gives an estimate over the phone or Internet-sight-unseen. These estimates often sound too good-to-be-true. They usually are.
* The moving company demands cash or a large deposit before the move.
* The mover doesn’t provide you with a copy of “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move,” a booklet movers are required by Federal regulations to supply to their customers in the planning stages of interstate moves.
* The company’s Web site has no local address and no information about licensing or insurance.
* The mover claims all goods are covered by their insurance.
* When you call the mover, the telephone is answered with a generic “movers” or “moving company,” rather than the company’s name.
* Offices and warehouse are in poor condition or nonexistent.
* On moving day, a rental truck arrives rather than a company-owned and marked fleet truck.

For more tips on how to have a safe move or file a complaint about a moving company, click on the links: 

American Moving & Storage Association 
 

California Public Utilities Commission 
 

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
Safety Violation, Household Goods and Hazardous Materials Consumer Complaint Hotline Website
 

PUC’s AVAILABLE ENFORCEMENT TOOLS

ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIONS
Official Notice: A warning notice issued to a licensed carrier for minor violations.

Cease and Desist Letter: A staff letter issued to an unlicensed carrier directing that it cease violating the law.

Administrative Citation: A staff action assessing a fine against a licensed carrier for violations of Commission rules and regulations or against an unlicensed carrier for conducting operations without a permit.

Order Instituting Investigation / Order to Show Cause: A formal Commission investigation of carrier violations. Could result in a fine or the suspension or revocation of the carrier’s permit.

CIVIL ACTIONS
Temporary Restraining Order / Injunction: An order by the Superior Court in response to an application by the Commission’s Executive Director to enjoin a carrier from violating the law.

Telephone Disconnection: A court order directing the disconnection of telephone service of an unlicensed carrier that is advertising in the Yellow Pages or elsewhere.

CRIMINAL ACTION
Misdemeanor prosecution: A criminal complaint filed by a district attorney, city attorney, or the state Attorney General for violations of the Public Utilities Code, Penal Code, or Business and Professions Code. Usually involves misdemeanor crimes, but could involve a felony (e.g., grand theft or extortion).

CARRIER RIGHTS IF A CUSTOMER CANNOT PAY:

Under the law, a licensed carrier has a lien on the customer’s goods to secure payment of the “Not to Exceed” amount set forth in writing by the carrier before the move commences plus the amount for any additional services agreed to in writing by the customer. Upon payment by the customer, the lien is extinguished and the goods must be released.

REQUIRED COMPANY INFORMATION:Every licensed carrier is required to display its PUC-issued permit number on its vehicles and to include the number in all advertising. Stationery, shipping documents, and related forms shall include the permit number and show all names used by the carrier in conducting its business, the address of its principal place of business, and the name under which the particular transportation is performed where more than one name is listed.

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