On July 16 Andy recieved a frantic telephone call from his wife Ana. She had tried to contact the moving company to schedule delivery of their belongings to their new home in Colorado Springs. All she could say was "everything is gone."
The moving company had placed all of their household belongings into public storage. After a few months the moving company stopped paying the public storage. Without knowing who the property owner was the storage facility auctioned off Andy and Ana's belongings. The auction was held on June 20th, 2012.
How did this happen?
Andy: In March of 2011 I was in Fort Gordon, GA and I had just received orders to be stationed in Colorado. Ana- my fiance at the time- was working in Washington DC. We had decided to put her house in New Jersey for sale in anticipation of getting married and her moving to Colorado. We contacted several moving companies and filled out one of those quote forms online.
Ana: We reviewed several quotes, compared prices and inclusive details like long term storage, packing, etc.
We selected the quotes we felt offered the best value, and we did some research, visiting the companies websites, checking their status with BBB, verified DOT license numbers.
Andy: Finally we selected a moving company. We spoke with their representatives and signed a contract. We were told that the moving company was contracted by a moving service brokerage, which isn't all that unusual, and that we would make payments to the brokerage to handle the packers, the local moving truck, the long haul moving truck, the long term storage, and the delivery at the destination. Makes sense, right? And apparently this is mostly how it is done across the industry.
Moving day came, the movers arrived, they had the same DOT number and all the correct information, they did an amazing job packing. We wrote the check for the moving, They packed and moved everything the four of us had in the house, from the garage to the attic.
Over the course of the next year there was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong until we tried to schedule the move.
How did you find out your property was gone?
Ana: When I tried to find out where the moving company went I eventually made contact with the legitimate moving and storage company. I spoke with the owner of that company and she told me that we are not the first case, and to contact the investigator who has been working this over the course of over 70 cases for her business, and at least as many others using other businesses identities.
Andy: When we contacted the investigator he described it as essentially identity fraud, and stealing a small business identity is a great deal easier than stealing an individual persons identity.
How do the scammers get your money?
The investigator: The fraudulent business represents themselves as the legitimate business. DOT license and BBB ratings checks out. The fraudulent business will also buy into the referal system used by the legitimate businesses.
The scam happens when you schedule delivery and they hold your belongings ransom until you pay them a few to several thousand more, claiming that you exceeded the estimated weight or cubic feet. Most people end up paying, because compared to the cost of your entire household belongings a few thousand is nothing. It is usually small enough that it isn't worth hiring a lawyer to try and get your money back through the courts, and on a single case basis there isn't enough to justify law enforcement involvement.
If any investigation gets too close, they shut down operations, and move, leaving any property in storage abandoned.
How did all of your property end up auctioned away?
Andy: In our case something caused them to stop operations, they stopped paying the public storage, and without knowing who the property owner was the storage facility auctioned off our belongings. Storage companies will tell you that legally they can not enter the storage unit to determine the rightful owner. In our case the storage company stated that they had numerous conversations with the moving company, and the moving company told them they would not be making any further payments and to auction off the contents. We believe the storage company knew that the moving company was not the rightful owner of the contents, but chose to go to auction without any further effort to contact us or the other property owners.
Due to the commendable efforts of local law enforcement the auction buyers were contacted. Andy and Ana's belongings had been stored in multiple storage rooms. One buyer was using these purchases to stock a thrift store, and had not sold all of the contents he had purchased. Andy and Ana were able to buy back most of these belongings. The remainder of their belongings were reportedly already sold at area flea-markets.
Andy: Each day goes by we remember something else that we are missing, and every day is like another punch in the guts.
Ana: I feel violated. I have lost my trust in other people.
How can anyone protect themselves?
With business identity fraud, all the homework you do might not reveal if the company is legitimate, and some small companies might not look right even if they are on the up-and-up.
To reduce the risk of your property being auctioned if your moving company stops payment: do your best to know where your belongings are being stored, then contact the storage facility and ensure they know that you are the property owner.
Of course the fraudulent company could fake this as well, but the way this scam works there really is no profit to be made by doing so.
Another step ANYTIME your belongings go into ANY storage is to make large clear labels with your name and contact info, and a statement that your belongings were placed into storage by a moving company, and who to contact before considering the property abandoned. Place these labels on as many of your boxes, pieces of furniture, and other items as possible. It may seem like a lot of work, but in the worst case scenario it is probably worth the effort.
Protecting yourself from the money scam can be a lot more difficult. If the moving company is legit you should be able to get something in writing to indicate that you will not be responsible for excessive additional cost due to inacurate estimates within X percentage. You will have to decide how much that percentage you are comfortable with. Keep in mind that most companies out there are legitimate, and you may actually have more stuff than you realized, so be fair to the person in business, but protect yourself.
Keep accurate records and photographs of your belongings, and have the belongings insured by a third party. Ensure the third party will cover a loss such as this. Ask alot of questions and get it in writing. Decline any insurance the moving company offers, if they are a fraud so is the insurance.
Lastly, go with the biggest brand name moving company you can afford. But make sure you are actually dealing with them and their authorized agents. I would still label all of my boxes!