CLEVELAND — An Ohio man says his mother-in-law’s remains, as well as his wife’s wedding dress, are among the possessions being held “hostage” by a moving company that has dozens of complaints nationwide.
Cecil Hairston's woes started when he moved his family from Ohio to Colorado. Hairston believed he was working with one of the nation’s most recognized moving companies but later learned he had been duped.
So-called “rogue movers” attract consumers with websites that often imitate legitimate moving companies by relying on subtle variations of well-known and reputable moving company names that have operated for decades.
The company initially quoted a price of $3,200, which climbed to more than $7,000 by the time all his possessions were loaded onto a truck. He refused to pay the extra amount, and the moving company kept his possessions.
“Modern-day piracy is what I’d call it, “said Hairston, who wound up losing everything he owned.
His complaint, which was filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, went nowhere.
An exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation has found Ohio regulators have limited enforcement authority when pursuing moving company scams that include holding household goods hostage while charging thousands of dollars above what’s contained in contracts.
Consumers are caught by surprise when household goods are loaded onto trucks and suddenly told everything they own will be held in storage until they turn over thousands of dollars—in cash—above and beyond what was agreed to initially.
The PUCO’s pursuit of Hairston’s complaint ended with a phone call.
The agency’s records reveal it was “put on hold” by the moving company and “no one ever came back.” Neither did the PUCO—instead advising Hairston to “call the police and seek legal help.”
Our investigation found that while the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio promises that “your rights are enforced by the PUCO”—it has no authority to pursue rogue moving companies with criminal charges.
Instead, it levies monetary fines against moving companies called “civil forfeitures” for regulatory violations such as failing to register, failing to report on the status of a complaint and safety violations ranging from broken taillights to bad brakes.
Included among regulations for moving companies in Ohio are:
- Written copy of consumer rights and responsibilities
- Written estimate of fees
- Receipt of bill of lading
- Certification and registration that includes insurance coverage and annual fees up to $300
A review of PUCO compliance records and letters sent to moving companies by the PUCO between January 2019 and July 2020 reveals :
- $1,000 fines were levied against two moving companies for failing to report on the status of damaged goods complaints filed by consumers
- $500 fines levied against two moving companies and a $1,000 fine for another for failing to register
In addition, on July 13, 2020, during reviews of official records, the PUCO issued 24 compliance orders to moving companies to “cease any and all operations” for operating without necessary certification.
Consumer advocates say that moving companies that flaunt regulatory regulations simply re-organize under new names and continue to exploit consumers.
Matt Schilling is a spokesperson for the PUCO. He said that while his agency does not undertake criminal investigations, consumers need to become more aware of who they are hiring.
“It’s really important customers to understand the terms of the contract with the moving company in terms of hostage goods, “ said Schilling, adding the PUCO is charged with enforcing regulatory violations.
That leaves consumers like Hairston—and two more we found exploited by the same moving company—without the protection they hoped for.
“I definitely felt kind of neglected, disappointed and let down that an agency that puts out they’re going to assist the public and make sure to regulate things—they didn’t do a job of holding people accountable or pointing us in the direction where we should go,” said Hairston.
Our investigation took only minutes to discover the moving company that exploited the Hairston family had over 50 complaints nationwide filed with federal regulators and over 60 more with the Better Business Bureau.
A July report issued by the Better Business Bureau reveals 5,492 complaints and negative reviews for overcharging in 2019. The same report found that data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates moving companies nationwide, revealed that 4,780 complaints were received last year, of which 57% involved overcharging.
In addition, the Office of Inspector General with the U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a “Most Wanted” list of 35 suspects in moving company fraud cases.
Andrea Kropf is the regional special agent-in-charge of the Office of Inspector General, and says her office will pursue criminal charges but, she adds, it is a lengthy and time-consuming process.
“Many of these companies use aliases and fake names when they set these companies up, so determining the real identities of these people and where they’re located can take time, “ said Kropf.
One of the cases Kropf investigated included a guilty plea last January by a defendant who used a warehouse in West Chester, Ohio, as part of a criminal enterprise that involves 12 others in an ongoing “hostage goods” case.
Here are some resources you can use to check the backgrounds of moving companies before you hire one:
- Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Household Good Program where consumers can search company complaint history
- Complaints can be filed with the FMCSA’s National Consumer Complaint Database or call toll free at 1-888-368-7238
- Online Office of Inspector General Complaint form: www.oig.dot.gov/hotline or call 800-424-9071
- Better Business Bureau website: www.bbb.org