OWINGS MILLS, Md. - When 25-year-old Lauren Richeson made a big move to New York City by herself, she wanted her favorite things. But for her first ten weeks in the Big Apple, she says she had no bed, no TV and no wardrobe. Almost everything she owned sat on a truck and then in storage for the better part of two months. And it wasn't by choice.
Richeson says her family paid $900 up-front to move her stuff. But the movers wanted more when they showed up to deliver, one day late. Richeson explains, "He says, ‘I have my boss on the phone, Avi, and he says you need to give him an additional $900 because it's a second day delivery'."
When Lauren refused to pay more than her binding contract allowed for additional fees, she says the movers just pulled away from her apartment, carrying all this stuff. And she says they held onto it for months.
Experts say Lauren's items were held hostage. It's a common scheme in the moving industry according to Louis Campion with the Maryland Motor Truck Association. He says, "Once they have that control they'll illegally hold your goods hostage and jack up the price, refusing to deliver those goods to you unless you pay that exorbitant fee."
An ABC2 News investigation uncovered that hostage complaints tied to Richeson' s mover aren't isolated. USA Relocation, an Owings Mills company, has just one tractor and one trailer according to U.S. Department of Transportation records. And although their owner, Abraham Gabay tells ABC2 they've never held items, we discovered a history of that happening.
An information request made to the U.S. DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration turned up 21 complaints to the agency in the last four years, with 15 related specifically to changing estimates, increasing final charges and holding items hostage. ABC2 News Investigators pulled records for the five largest registered movers from Maryland and discovered those companies, which operate with more than 280 trucks, have a combined four complaints in that same timeframe.
Complaints about USA Relocation are remarkably similar to Lauren Richeson's experience. For instance, one person reported to the FMCSA that their estimate jumped by $3,000 after a binding contract was signed. Another says the mover told him they wouldn't unload the furniture until they paid an additional $1,400. Another reported to the feds that her deceased father's belongings went missing after she was told she had to pay an additional $1,000 to move them.
The Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland is familiar with USA Relocation's history. The company is not an accredited business or a paid member of the BBB. But CEO Angie Barnett says, "There are horrific tales that consumers have been reporting to the BBB."
The local BBB has logged 40 complaints about the company in the last three years, with some customers saying the company threatened or actually did leave if they refused to pay more at delivery. One of the complainants, who also filed with the FMCSA, was told, "Pay me now or I leave" by the company's movers, while another reported, "They would not release my furnishings unless I paid all the extra up-front".
To Barnett, the conduct of the company is alarming. She says, "We're very concerned with their customer service, their professionalism and that they're not living up to the expectations of the consumer by overcharging and holding goods hostage until the higher amount is paid for."
The Maryland Attorney General's office, which processes complaints about movers in the state, has heard the same allegations from at least three Marylanders. But they're not the only ones complaining.
Although USA Relocation looks like a brand new Owings Mills business, records from the U.S. DOT show the owners moved here from Texas and just launched a fresh website. Campion says it's an easy fix for a company with a troubled history, "Anyone can put up a very nice looking website that promotes themselves and gives the appearance they're a very professional company."
But the reviews from Texas aren't much better from the feds or the BBB office located there. Customers told the Dallas branch of the Better Business Bureau their original quotes were sometimes doubled and their stuff held if they wouldn't pay up, just like Lauren Richeson.
Richeson battled the company for months to get her belongings back, hounding staff with phone calls, visiting storage facilities and contacting various agencies for help. It was frustrating, she says, "I definitely thought all my stuff was gone so many times. But I worked hard for these things."
And she worked hard to get them back, although calls from an advocacy group
called Move Rescue played a role in her rescue. The group, which tries to stop disreputable interstate movers, is run by two reputable companies, United and Mayflower. Spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan tells ABC2, "We do find that when we get involved a lot of times we are able to resolve these cases pretty easily." In Lauren's case, the group helped negotiate the release of her belongings and sent USA Relocation a letter to end the stalemate.
ABC2 News Investigators tried to ask USA Relocation about their history of hostage complaints and about Lauren's case, but when we visited their Owings Mills headquarters, staffers wouldn't answer their door. They closed the blinds and ignored our calls.
Their staff also repeatedly hung up on our producer when called asked for answers. When we finally got the owner, Abraham Gabay on his cell phone, he first told us the situation was Lauren's fault because she failed to show on delivery day and was continually unreachable by phone. But in the same conversation he later said Lauren often called demanding her items and cursing at staff.
Richeson admits to being a fighter and says that may be what ultimately got the company to hand over her stuff, "You should definitely do your research because it's worth it, because people are out there trying to take advantage of you and you do not have to be a victim."
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration tells ABC2 they are, "Reviewing this company's operations to determine its compliance with federal requirements."
We gave USA Relocation the option to do an on-camera interview on many occasions or send us a formal statement. They declined.