NEWARK – The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs is citing 19 unlicensed moving companies with violating state law, and assessing civil penalties of up to $2,500 each, as the result of an undercover sting operation.
Under the Division’s partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the sting also resulted in the arrest of several moving company employees who allegedly were in the United States in violation of law – including one who had previous criminal convictions for sexual abuse of a minor and criminal possession of a loaded firearm.
“This sting operation – and our partnership with ICE and the New Jersey State Police – is protecting New Jerseyans from significant potential harm, even as it helps prevent consumer fraud,” Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said. “Moving companies must comply with our laws. Consumers should learn as much as possible about any moving company – including learning whether it is registered – before entrusting its employees with their belongings.”
The sting operation took place in early November 2014. It began with Consumer Affairs investigators who posed as consumers seeking to make an ordinary household move. They booked appointments with unlicensed movers who used online listings to solicit work.
The unlicensed companies sent moving crews to the location of the undercover investigators’ fictitious address in Wyckoff, and unwittingly into the second phase of the sting. Upon arriving at the address, the unlicensed movers were inspected by Consumer Affairs investigators, as well as ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers, New Jersey State Police, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“Too many consumers have been ripped off by movers who held their furniture and other goods hostage while demanding outrageously inflated prices,” Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Steve Lee said. “Protecting consumers begins with our enforcement of New Jersey’s licensing laws.”
“The outstanding partnership between ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs once again demonstrates the necessity for law enforcement agencies to work in concert to keep our streets safe,” said John Tsoukaris, ICE ERO field office director. “ICE will continue to work with our law enforcement partners in New Jersey to arrest and remove convicted criminals and other priority aliens.”
State law requires all intrastate movers — those performing residential moves that both begin and end in New Jersey — to be licensed by the Division of Consumer Affairs. They must protect consumers’ goods by maintaining cargo liability insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, and bodily injury and property damage insurance.
They must register each moving vehicle they use in New Jersey, and keep the vehicles properly marked and insured, in compliance with State regulations. Movers also must provide consumers with a written estimate of the costs of the move. There are approximately 310 licensed intrastate movers in New Jersey.
Some statistics from the sting operation: Nineteen companies face civil penalties of $2,500 each, for soliciting intrastate moves without the required New Jersey license:
· If a company applies for State licensure within 30 days, this penalty will be reduced to $1,250. Each company has the opportunity to contest the assertion that it violated the law. To date, seven of the companies have paid penalty amounts totaling $12,500. Two movers have become licensed, and two more have submitted applications for licensure.
· ICE identified and arrested seven moving company employees who fell under the ICE priorities and who allegedly were in the United States in violation of law. Three of these individuals had been previously convicted of crimes. One individual from Ecuador had two DWI convictions; another from El Salvador had a conviction for sexual abuse against a minor, criminal possession of a loaded firearm and disorderly conduct. Another individual from El Salvador, an MS-13 gang member, had a conviction for criminal attempted theft. ICE is pursuing federal criminal prosecution for one of these individuals who was previously deported and allegedly had illegally reentered the United States.
· The State Police arrested three moving company employees who were wanted on warrants for matters such as unpaid child support or unpaid traffic violations.
· Two moving companies sent drivers who did not have valid driver’s licenses.
· Despite the requirement that moving companies must use moving vehicles that are properly registered and insured, three companies sent Budget rental trucks.
· Most of the companies solicited through online listings. Ten used their own, often professional-looking websites. Seven used Craigslist and/or Angie’s List listings. The rest used other online venues. Acting Director Lee noted that an attractive online listing does not mean a company is licensed or reputable.
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has advice for consumers to follow before hiring a mover. They include:
· Call the Division of Consumer Affairs at 800-242-5846 to verify the license status of any mover you consider hiring. Ask whether consumer complaints have been filed against the mover.
· An estimator is required by law to come to the consumer’s home to provide an estimate.
· Obtain a written estimate from the mover you select. The cost can be estimated on an hourly rate, by weight and miles traveled, or by cubic measurement.
· Never pack jewelry, money, or valuable documents with your goods to be moved. The mover is not responsible for items of extraordinary value.
· Check your goods as they are being delivered. If any are lost or damaged, notify the mover immediately. A damage claim can be filed up to 90 days after the move date.
· Unless you purchase additional coverage, the mover is required to compensate you only up to 60 cents per pound, per article, for damages.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 800-242-5846 or 973-504-6200.