Bad Move

A hurricane victim says she was hijacked by hired haulers

This past November, Delray Beach resident Karen Levine got the smackdown from Hurricane Wilma. Twice. The first punch came from the storm. Her condo roof caved in and one wall had to be partially gutted, rendering her — and her belongings — homeless. The second blow, Levine claims, was delivered by North Miami-based Fair Price Moving Inc. She contends its employees intimidated, harassed, and overcharged her.

On a clear and unremarkable November 10 evening, she recalls, four men pulled up in an unmarked white truck for the move. The quote? A little more than $300. They spent 90 minutes loading Levine's belongings into the truck. The bill? A stunning $862.

In the days that followed, Levine says she asked the president of Fair Price, Reuven Shmueli, for an explanation. He responded, she states, by holding her stuff for several days until she forked over even more money. She also says Fair Price workers made harassing calls to her cell phone at least six times during the ordeal. "I got a really bad feeling in my stomach," Levine recalls. "By the time [Shmueli] was done with me, I was hysterical crying. I thought, This guy has got me by my balls."

In the end, she shelled out $1080, almost four times the quoted price.

Shmueli declined to discuss the case in detail. "Nothing is going to be perfect," he comments. And as for the alleged harassment: "I don't remember unkind words."

Indeed in the past two years, more than 100 complaints about the firm have been registered with the state, the Better Business Bureau, and on Websites. Some people say they were lured with friendly service and then overcharged. In a few cases, they were left with damaged goods. In others, they allegedly never saw some of their belongings again. Like Levine, still other customers have complained of harassment, intimidation, and overcharging.

Shmueli insists his company did nothing wrong. "I'm a very honest person," he says.

But this past December 16, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services found Fair Price had violated three state laws — including telling consumers the "carrier is not liable for all items packed by owner." By state statute, carriers are responsible for such items.

Fair Price paid a $3000 fine in settlement and agreed to "immediately cease doing business as an intrastate mover of household goods in Florida." Fair Price closed in December, according to state records.

The story doesn't end there, though. The U.S. Department of Transportation and Florida Attorney General are studying other potential violations at the firm. "This just looked like it was becoming more and more of a consistent complaint," says JoAnn Carrin, communications director for the attorney general's office.

What's more, Fair Price is only one example of a company in an industry so fraught with deceptive practices that the state and federal agencies in charge of stopping them are scrambling just to keep up. "People are definitely being taken advantage of by some rogue companies," says Ian Grossman, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a division of the Department of Transportation. He didn't comment specifically about Fair Price.

When asked about the frequency of problems with unscrupulous movers, Miami FBI spokesperson Judith Orihuela says, "We could probably spend the whole squad's [energies] on this."

Movers were making such a killing on unsuspecting consumers that the Miami FBI intervened. In 2003 the feds launched Operation Stow Biz, in which undercover agents sometimes posed as potential customers. In each case, the moving company provided an estimate before loading belongings into trucks. On each occasion, the moving company would later fraudulently inflate the price of the move and thereafter would refuse to deliver the goods until the higher price was paid. In some cases, the inflated price was well over twice the original estimate.

Ultimately the feds indicted 16 moving companies and 74 operators, owners, and employees on charges of fraud and extortion. Of the 46 defendants, 40 were arrested in South Florida. None of them worked for Fair Price.

Fair Price incorporated in January 2003, according to state documents filed with the Florida Department of Consumer Affairs. Complaints began as early as January 2004, says Al Polizzi, vice president of communications of the West Palm Beach-based Better Business Bureau of Southeast Florida and the Caribbean. And by the end of that year, seven complaints about the firm had been registered with consumer affairs. That same year, the company shelled out $1500 in fines to the state and consumers. Fair Price has been listed as "unsatisfactory since June of 2005 for unanswered and unresolved complaints," Polizzi says.

Tony Curley hired Fair Price to transfer his belongings from Pompano Beach to San Diego. When the company moved him this past September 26, it was unlicensed and uninsured, according to the FMCSA, the agency also probing complaints about Fair Price. Among Curley's grievances are that Fair Price increased its price from the one originally quoted, changed delivery dates, added cash-only fees, damaged some items, lost others, and ignored him when he tried to reach them.

"This company is obviously very skilled at ripping consumers off," Curley stated in one of his many complaints filed with the Department of Transportation.

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