Sofas Held Hostage: Fraudulent Movers Ransom, Steal Belongings

FMCSA itself, Ferro said, takes a two-pronged attack: "We shut down the worst, and we make sure the consumer has an easy checklist" to help them tell honest movers from possible scam artists.

When consumers log complaints about a mover, FMCSA sends investigators. Depending on what they find, the mover may be fined or put out of business. In July, for example, it shut down Able Moving -- the business that Rena Kovalcik had hired.

Able, according to FMCSA, had its operating authority suspended for holding customers' shipments hostage and was assessed civil penalties totaling $20,000. Efforts by ABC News to contact the company for comment were not successful.

As for Worldwide Van Lines, the FMCSA website shows that nine customers filed hostage complaints in 2010, the same year Kovalcik used them. There were no hostage complaints against the company filed for 2013. Operations manager Kevin Lyoe told ABC News that his company brokers some 7,000 moves a year, and that nine hostage complaints a year should be viewed in that context.

"If customers call us," Lyoe said, "We get involved. We don't tolerate that kind of behavior." Of companies such as Able, he said, "We cut them off if we get complaints, and we make sure to get the DOT involved."

As for Kovalcik's not having known she was hiring a broker (rather than a mover) when she hired Worldwide, Lyoe said the contract would have made it plain that Worldwide was a broker.

FMCSA recently shut down five movers in one week -- three in Florida, one in Maryland, and another in South Carolina.

The administration also tries to educate consumers. Its website lists five "red flags" that indicate a mover may not be legit. They include:

The mover doesn't do an onsite inspection of the customer's belongings, but instead offers a lowball estimate, sight-unseen.

The mover demands cash or a large deposit upfront.

On moving day, a generic rental truck arrives, rather than a company-owned and marked fleet truck.

Offices and warehouse are in poor condition or nonexistent.

The mover's telephone is answered with a generic "Movers" or "Moving Company," rather than with a company name.

John Bisney, spokesman for the American Moving & Storage Association, which represents about 4,100 movers nationwide, said consumers also get a potential mover's ID number, assigned to it by the Department of Transportation. On FMCSA's website and on the website for his own association, consumers can run a search using that number to see if the mover has a record of complaints -- and for what.

Bisney said "rogue" or "bandit" movers give the entire industry a black eye. Legitimate movers have as great an interest as do consumers, he said, in seeing them put out of business.

Lyoe agreed: "There're a lot of shady companies out there."

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