YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: State authorities announced this morning that they slammed two North Jersey moving companies and their owners with $21.2 million in fines, restitution and investigation reimbursements for holding customers’ belongings hostage after jacking up low-ball estimates.
Progressive Movers and ABC Packing Supplies — along with their owner/operators — must pay $123,532 in consumer restitution to about 70 past customers, under terms of a final default judgment issued by a Superior Court in Paterson.
Progressive’s owner, Konstantin Egorov, and ABC’s head, Yevgeniy Piskun, are both barred from ever again working in the moving industry in New Jersey. Their corporate charters were vacated, as well.
“The State will docket the judgment as a state-wide lien, as the defendants do not have the ability at this time to make the Court-ordered payments,” state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said this morning.
A judge in 2010 shut down the businesses of both men — who used a variety of names, such as “Greg,” “Kyle” and “Sam” — after state authorities first filed suit.
In one case, an employee demanded sex in exchange for reducing the suddenly ballooned price, New Jersey authorities alleged.
“I have never seen the Mafia other than in movies,” one customer said, “but this seems close.”
An investigation by the state Division of Consumer Affairs found that the defendants “committed hundreds of violations of the state’s Public Mover’s Licensing Act and Consumer Fraud Act, and related regulations,” Chiesa said.
Progressive Movers also violated terms of a 2010 consent order with the DCA, leading to reinstatement of what had been a suspended $55,000 penalty, he said.
“These defendants enticed consumers with low-cost moves that they had no intention of honoring,” Chiesa said.
“Bait-and-switch pricing, demands for higher payments and forcing consumers to pay significantly higher prices by withholding their possessions were all part of their ordinary business practices.”
Progressive Movers, based in Paterson, is also known as Modern One Versatile Expert Relocation Services; M.O.V.E.R.S., Inc; and Modern M.O.V.E.R.S., Inc.
ABC Packing Supplies, based in Lodi, is also known as State Wide Box Company, Inc.
Piskun is also known as Yevgeniy Peskun, Eugene Pisklin, Eugene Peskun, Eugene Peskin, Sam Pisktin, Sam Peskun and Sam Peskin.
State authorities began investigating after consumers complainted that the pair jacked up original estimates of a few hundred dollars per move to triple — and even quadruple — the agreed-upon price.
The majority weren’t poor or ignorant. Many of them are professionals or college students — including one who was going to law school – records show.
Some contracted with Progressive Movers, then later were charged for packing services and materials demanded under the name of a company they’d never heard of before the moves, state authorities said.
That company, ABC Packing Services, wasn’t licensed to perform moving services in New Jersey.
“First, they give you a $70 per hour quotes for three movers,” one customer said. “They assure you over and over again that there will be no additional charges. Once they load your furniture on the truck, the scam begins… You are then presented with a bill for at least six times your original estimate.
“For what I was assured of over and over again would cost $210, I was given a bill for $1284, including many charges that I was told were included. Your furniture is held hostage until you pay the money. If you can’t pay, they will take your furniture and they say it will be put in storage until you can pay.”
Two friends said they got the same type of estimate: three movers at $70 an hour from Progressive. They said they were assured them it wouldn’t cost more than $270, with no extra costs. Seemed reasonable, they said, considering they were moving only a few blocks away.
On moving day, the women said, the crew that showed up began packing, even though they said they didn’t need the help. Once everything was loaded onto the truck, they said, they received a handwritten bill – for $1,300.
One of the most outrageous incidents reported involved a bill – also written on a scrap of paper — for $3,612.38. When he refused to pay, the customer said the company offered to “release” his mattress so he had something to sleep on, for $1,100.
One of the complaints led to arrests of three Progressive employees, all from Saddle Brook, after an elderly Salem County woman summoned police, saying she’d been scammed.
The woman told police she signed a contract for $210, then was hit with a bill for $1,755 after everything was loaded onto the truck. She came up with $750, including $50 in quarters that she used for laundry, and, in turn, got a recliner, a bed frame and nothing else back.
While the men were being questioned, a police dog reacted to something in the cab of the truck. Police said they found marijuana, then arrested all three movers.
Police otherwise can’t really help, because the over-billing disputes are civil matters. But the DCA can.
In their lawsuit, state authorities said the movers hatched a scheme in which they posted profiles for Progressive and a company called Modern One on websites where consumers search for local movers. The profiles had no phone numbers but, instead, required customers to seek estimates online that turned out to be as low as $210 a move.
Customers received confirmations saying the quoted price included services such as loading, delivery, re-assembly, truck rental, gas, and insurance – even five free packing boxes.
The movers required customers to sign blank, incomplete documents, such as bills of lading, or packing charges forms, without letting them read the forms. They then filled in the blanks with “exorbitant, unexpected charges,” the DCA said.
In many cases, the extra charges covered services which were unjustifiable or unwarranted, or which weren’t explained ahead of time to the consumers, state authorities allege.
Next thing people knew, their price had been jacked up to anywhere from $500 to $4,940, they said.
The average total price was $1,400 – more than 500 percent above an original $210 quote, state authorities said.
The catch: The defendants often waited until the customers’ belongings were either locked up in a moving vehicle, or put in storage, before dropping the new bill.
When consumers refused to pay, the companies “told them their property would be kept in storage and not returned until the consumers paid the demanded amount, as well as storage costs,” the DCA said.
In several cases, the movers drove off with people’s property, refusing to return it for days until the consumers paid, state authorities allege. Those fortunate enough to retrieve their valuables said they often found things damaged or missing. The companies refused to cover the losses, the DCA said.
The DCA cited recent complaints from 87 customers – the most against any moving company in the state.
State officials pointed out that Progressive Movers and Egorov already had agreed to a consent order with the DCA in July 2010 aimed are resolving previous complaints. It allowed them to stay in business, under certain limitations and requirements that state authorities say both men ignored.
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