The ads from the moving companies on Craigslist were enticing. A flat rate. No hidden fees.
But the first sign that the promotions might not be as advertised was when the movers pressured consumers to sign contracts with “very small print.”
Dozens of people in cities around the state report being victimized by scam artists based in Houston who posed as a legitimate moving company through Craigslist posts.
The customers looking for an inexpensive move say they’ve been ripped off or robbed by the fake movers, who wore professional uniforms, rented large moving vans and required signed contracts riddled with hidden fees, such as $90 per item wrapped in plastic.
Two of the principal suspects involved in what investigators call “hostage moves” are now in custody in Harris County after an investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department connected them to the crimes from March to September of last year. The Better Business Bureau of Houston said this group of con artists has been active for years.
The group has been elusive, as they frequently changed the name of the business used and adopted fake identities, said BBB spokeswoman Monica Russo, who participated in an undercover operation in October and saw the suspects in action.
Court records show the suspects stole property or money from at least 20 victims around the state.
Investigators said Fanelli would pose as the owner of a legitimate moving company that promised a flat rate moving fee for $39.99 an hour and would then present the customer with an inflated bill that some reported reached more than $1,500. Investigators believe the scheme also took place in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.
The victims said the moving crew would arrive in a rented van at the residence. Bueno, posing as the foreman of the crew, would typically present a contract for moving services and pressure them to sign quickly, court records show. After they signed the agreement, Fanelli would fill in blank portions of the contract and prepare an invoice with extra fees and surcharges, including charges for plastic wrap, walking up stairs and gas, according to records.
Once the household’s goods were loaded and locked into the truck, Bueno would typically present the inflated invoice. Fanelli would pose as the owner of the company over the phone if people called to complain and would negotiate the price or trade household items in exchange for the fee, the complaint states.
Several victims reported that the men not only attempted to charge higher rates, but also drove off with the trucks that contained all their possessions when they refused to pay.
During one incident, Houston resident Jindu Okwuwa refused to pay the inflated charge and the suspects left with the van, containing the man’s belongings. He told investigators that the value was estimated at $20,000.
Many victims identified Fanelli and Bueno from photo lineups, and investigators searched Craigs- list records to tie the men to the incidents, according to court records. Bueno has previously been convicted of assault of a family member, and Fanelli has been convicted of forgery, records show.
Russo advised consumers to check a moving company’s registration with the state, to get quotes in advance in writing and contact police if movers try to hold property hostage.