CINCINNATI (CBSDFW.COM) – A federal grand jury has charged 12 people with conspiring in a racketeering enterprise to defraud individuals through their moving companies located throughout the United States, including in Texas, Florida, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina, Illinois, California, Connecticut, Colorado and Missouri.

It’s a story the CBS11 Consumer Justice team has been investigating and reporting on extensively during the last six months.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cincinnati, more than 900 victims have been identified. 

Five defendants were arrested Tuesday. The indictment was returned July 25 and unsealed on July 31.

According to the indictment, the defendants operated and worked through a number of affiliated moving companies, which include:

First National Moving and Storage
Public Moving and Storage
Flagship Van Lines
Public Moving Services
Independent Van Lines
Smart Relocation Solutions
JBR Underground
Trident Auto Shipping
National Relocation Van Lines
Unified Van Lines
National Relocation Solutions
United National Moving and Storage
Presidential Moving Services
US Relocation Systems

The co-conspirators owned, operated and worked as employees, members and associates of the affiliated moving companies. The moving companies were operated principally out of a business address in Hollywood, Florida and had a warehouse in West Chester, Ohio according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Ohio.

The indictment alleged that the defendants executed a scheme between April 2013 through July 2018 to enrich themselves by stealing from customers who hired their moving companies to move their household goods.

To execute the alleged scheme, the defendants allegedly lied to customers about how long their moving companies had been in business, claiming many years of experience for companies that had been created just a few months prior. The defendants also allegedly created fake online reviews, praising the work of their moving companies.

When potential customers contacted the defendants, the defendants would allegedly provide customers with low binding estimates to do their move, promising to beat their competitor’s prices. After the customers agreed to hire the moving companies, employees of the moving companies would allegedly load the customers’ goods onto the truck and then bump the price of the move. Under federal regulations, in a binding estimate a customer and the motor carrier must both agree in writing to a charge for services prior to the start of any work. When an estimate is binding, USDOT prevents interstate carriers from raising the price of the move after loading customers’ items.

The defendants and the moving companies would allegedly refuse to give back the household goods until customers paid the inflated prices. If customers did not pay the inflated prices on the moves, it is alleged, the defendants would, in some cases, steal the customers’ household goods, never delivering them.

For example, in July 2016, First National Moving and Storage loaded a customer’s goods to transport from Round Rock, Texas to Columbus, Ohio. After loading the goods, the company increased the cost of the move and told the customer that she had to agree to the higher price or the customer’s goods would not be returned to her. The customer called the company to complain, and, during one phone call, the customer was told by the company that her items would be auctioned if she did not pay the higher price.

After customers complained to federal regulators and others, it is alleged that the defendants would shut down the latest iteration of the moving company, and open a new moving company. In doing so, the defendants allegedly lied to federal regulators and hid the identities of the true owners in order to receive licenses to operate. The defendants and other employees of the moving companies also used aliases with customers and regulators.

The defendants are charged with conspiring to conduct the affairs of the moving companies through a pattern of racketeering activity, consisting of multiple acts of wire fraud, theft of an interstate shipment by carrier, Hobbs Act extortion and identification fraud.

The people arrested on Tuesday are from Florida and North Carolina.

“The arrests and actions taken today stemming from a criminal investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG) demonstrate our commitment to detecting and prosecuting fraudulent household goods movers who take advantage of unsuspecting customers by holding their personal belongings hostage for ransom,” said Thomas J. Ullom, DOT-OIG Regional Special Agent-in-Charge. “Working with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners, as well as Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials, we will continue our vigorous efforts to ensure that commercial household goods movers adhere to Federal laws and regulations designed to protect the public.”

Anyone who believes they are a victim of this fraudulent activity, can call the Victim Hotline at 1-800-424-9071 or email hotline@oig.dot.gov.