Christian Co. deputies raid a Springfield warehouse; uncover nationwide fraud scheme
A raid on a warehouse in Springfield turns into a nationwide investigation.
A complaint filed in Christian County led investigators to a warehouse on North Eldon Avenue. Deputies, armed with a search warrant and the help of the FBI busted down the doors.
They spent the nearly two days combing through the building only to find what they call a scheme of people posing as movers. They were holding onto property belonging to the people who hired them until they pay them a hefty fee to get it all back.
"The company they were dealing with was supposedly a Baltimore based company which is actually no longer in business either so that's how we became involved," says Sheriff Brad Cole.
He and his deputies worked for a few weeks to help a family in Ozark get their belongings back but found much more.
"There's probably about 20 different victims' items in that warehouse. I would estimate in the neighborhood of at least $2 million of stolen property that we've recovered and that's just a very small percentage of what we're looking at across the United States with this group of people," he explained.
Authorities call these so-called companies, rogue or hostage movers.
"They're holding your items hostage and they expect you to pay the ransom to get your items back. Simply put, this is organized crime. It's across the United States. It's a huge network of people working together," says Cole.
Mike D'Addario says he fell for their scheme.
"I got burned back in October of last year," he says.
He felt something wasn't right and recorded the delivery of his property from California to Texas.
D'Addario asked the delivery driver, "So before I agree to pay this extra can you prove to me the cubic footage?"
He then called the company directly.
"I'm very worried about the delivery," he tells the customer service representative.
"Okay so you need to pay the driver so he can off load your shipment," replies the woman on the phone.
D'Addario then calls the Austin Police Department for help.
"We're going to get out of here. There's not too much you can do but I can tell you, they have other options that you can go to contest," explains the officer.
D'Addario replies, "They don't. These are scam artists. There are 17 people who are burned right now."
"I can tell you to get a lawyer and go after them," says the officer.
The Christian County Sheriff's Office is handling these case differently.
"We're looking at this investigation similar to a theft by deceit," says Cole.
He's not isn't interested in going after any refunds the moving company may owe the Ozark family.
"We're not just talking about household furniture or things like that. We're talking about keepsakes, pictures, family memories, things of that nature that they can never replace. We've made phone calls to people all over the United States, several police agencies and sheriff’s agencies across the United States, working with them to try to get these people their property back," explains Cole.
This is what he says you should look out for.
"If you go on and look up Unified Van Lines you'll still find a website where they show that they're in business. I will tell you that that website is not a real website. These people who are taking advantage and using a website that they have set up to lure people in. Everything looks legit or on the up and up," he says.
We investigated Unified Van Lines and found that they do not have a valid license registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In addition, a check of their company name on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's website shows that Unified Van Lines has more than 50 complaints filed against them.
D'Addario tells us that he and several others who say they've been victims of this scam have uncovered more than a dozen other names involved in this network.
Industry leader, American Moving and Storage Association has set up a pro-movers program on their website, designed for consumer protection.
"The industry's definitely embraced it in terms of an opportunity to highlight who are the professionals, the true professionals in the industry. A great way to identify legitimate businesses," says the group's CEO and president, Scott Michael.
D'Addario says he'll do things differently the next time he moves.
"Go rent a U-Haul with your brother. Hire movers to load it in your driveway and hire movers to unload it in your next drive way," he says.
Two people working at the warehouse in Springfield were arrested in connection with the case in Christian County.
Sheriff Brad Cole says he's hoping to work with the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys office to file federal charges.