WECT Investigates: Movers fail to deliver, man loses everything he owned

Belongings, including parents’ ashes, sold at auction without owner’s knowledge
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 10:29 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Dan Zimmerman had been living in Oregon for 25 years. But in 2021, as the pandemic dragged on, he decided he wanted to be closer to family, and made the decision to move to Wilmington. The physicians assistant accepted a job here, packed up everything he owned, and started looking for a company to help him with his cross country move in October.

Zimmerman was shocked at the quotes he received when he started pricing the move. Just renting a U-Haul for the trip was over $7,000, and that didn’t include labor to load and unload the vehicle. He also looked at renting storage containers and then having them driven to Wilmington, but that cost nearly $20,000, not including labor to load and unload.

Dismayed by the initial estimates he received, Zimmerman started selling everything he could, deciding only to keep sentimental and high-value items he couldn’t part with. By that point, he only had a week before he was supposed to be in Wilmington to start his new job. He ended up choosing Mayflower.

“They scheduled it, I paid them $1,300 with instructions that I’d pay them three payments: $1,300 at the signing of the contract, $1,300 when they come up and pick up my stuff, and another $1,300 when they finally delivered my belongings,” Zimmerman explained.

The movers came to pack up his things, and Zimmerman drove to Wilmington. He’d arranged for the company to store his belongings at a storage facility in North Carolina while he tried to find a house. By December, Zimmerman had purchased a home, and called the moving company to schedule delivery.

He says that’s when the excuses started. First, he was told the mover was having trouble with his truck. Then, the mover had come down with COVID and would be out for two weeks.

“I said, ‘Okay, I can understand, but I’m still looking for my stuff.’ First week of January, they stopped talking to me and would not answer their phone calls. They would never return anything. And then all of a sudden, [in February], I got a text. All along, they had told me that my stuff is in Charlotte, North Carolina at a storage unit. And I said, ‘Okay, give me the address.’ ‘Well, it’s in a secure place. We can’t give you the address,’” Zimmerman relayed of the conversation.

At that point, he became very concerned, and started researching the company he thought was one of the most trusted names in the business. Zimmerman then realized he hadn’t hired Mayflower Transit, the company founded in 1927 and based out of St. Louis, Missouri. Instead, he’d hired another company with a copycat name, Mayflower Relocation Services, based out of West Palm Beach, Florida.

Upon further research, he learned Mayflower Relocation Services was not a full-service moving company, but a broker that has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). They have more than a dozen complaints against them on file, including some from consumers like Zimmerman who said they never received their belongings.

Zimmerman started to panic. He began calling the numbers he had for the movers every day. He said he learned that Mayflower Relocation Services had contracted out his move to another company, Efficient Moving and Storage. After countless phone calls, he eventually reached someone who informed him his belongings were being stored at Central Self Storage in Boise, Idaho.

“I called and sure enough, somebody had told them that I would be calling them looking for my belongings. And she said, ‘I’m so sorry, but your belongings have been auctioned.’ And sent me pictures. And it just ended my life. I mean, literally, it was unreal,” Zimmerman said of realizing everything he owned had been sold to a stranger without his knowledge.

Not only did his belongings include expensive sporting equipment, antique clocks his father made, and a guitar worth over $30,000, but also his deceased parents’ ashes, jewelry, and all his family photo albums.

“She said I would need a warrant to get access to the people that bought it. She wouldn’t help me out any other way. The Boise Police said they went over, there’s nothing that they can do, absolutely nothing. I called the Eugene [Oregon] Police, too, where my stuff was [picked up]. I told them and they told me that they are going to see what they could do. But it’s out of their state. And so I’ve called federal agencies, everybody, no one will help. Nobody,” Zimmerman said of his ordeal.

Several law enforcement officials told Zimmerman that because he had entered into a business agreement with this company, it was a civil matter, not a criminal one.

Zimmerman proceeded to escalate his complaints, contacting the Attorneys General in Oregon, Idaho, and Florida, hoping to find who had jurisdiction. He also filed a complaint with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in Washington, DC, which polices interstate moves. Someone there took his information, but Zimmerman said they told him it takes about 2,000 complaints against a particular moving company for the feds to move to shut them down.

Tracking down Zimmerman’s belongings

With the help of a warrant ultimately obtained by the Eugene Oregon Police department, authorities were able to make contact with the people who’d purchased Zimmerman’s belongings on StorageTreasures.com in mid-February for just under $5,000. Central Self Storage in Idaho put the contents of the unit up for sale when the person who’d rented it failed to pay the storage bill, unbeknownst to Zimmerman.

Unfortunately, by the time authorities reached the buyers, they said they’d already thrown away many of Zimmerman’s pictures and personal effects, not realizing he was actively looking for them. They offered to mail him the remaining photo albums they’d found, but at last check, they had not found Zimmerman’s parents’ ashes. Regarding his other valuables, the new owners declined to return them, saying they were trying to recover the money they spent purchasing the contents of the storage unit.

Zimmerman remains devastated over the loss, and disappointed that there is not a better system in place to police unscrupulous movers.

“I thought I was safe. I already had all my belongings packed, they were sitting in an apartment in Eugene. All they had to do is come pick it up and then deliver it. I never ever, ever perceived that I would lose my entire family history. Gone. Everything,” Zimmerman said.

Mayflower Relocation Services did not return calls from WECT seeking an explanation, nor did Efficient Moving and Storage. In addition to the complaints on file against Mayflower Relocation Services with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration lists dozens of complaints filed against the company.

A larger problem

In the last year alone, the FMCSA received more than 7,000 total complaints about moving scams. That number has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic.

The FMCSA is a civil agency. It does not have criminal authority, and does not prosecute movers it regulates. If there are an extraordinary number of complaints about an individual company that indicates a potential criminal enterprise, these cases are referred to the Department of Transpiration’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) for possible federal prosecution.

The OIG does prosecute these cases on occasion, but news releases from their office indicate that usually happens when consumers have already collectively lost millions of dollars to a particular company, and the scheme has risen to the level of racketeering.

In Oregon, where Zimmerman moved from, the FBI recently uncovered a 30,000 square foot warehouse filled with hundreds of pallets of people’s personal belongings movers appear to have taken from people and never delivered to their owners. Law enforcement spent weeks trying to identify the owners so those belongings could be returned.

“Upwards of 250 potential victims had their stuff picked up expecting it to be delivered in a timely manner according to contracts that were provided to them. Unfortunately, they never got their stuff,” FBI Special Agent Kieran Ramsey said. “It’s taken law enforcement a couple of weeks to identify the personal property and now make every effort that we can to return it.”

Because moving is often a stressful experience, and something people might not do very often, consumers can be vulnerable to making mistakes hiring a mover that can have significant consequences.

“People need to make sure they have everything in writing when it comes to organizing their move. That includes making sure that they understand whether the people they are in contact with are a broker or a moving company because oftentimes these scams start with an unscrupulous broker,” Ramsey added.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has received 140 complaints against moving companies since the beginning of 2021. It’s a big enough problem that he’s written a column advising consumers how to protect themselves before making a move. While there are some things you can do to try to recover your losses after a move gone wrong, Stein says it’s best to try to protect yourself on the front end.

“It underscores the need to do research. What scammers do is they will use a name very similar to another company that is familiar to you and me. And they try to prey on our sense of trust. And so we urge people to do research and make sure that company is legit make sure that there aren’t a lot of complaints about them. Because you don’t want to hand over your life’s possessions to some scam artist,” Stein advised.

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