MOVING COMPANY OWNERS PLEAD GUILTY TO DEFRAUDING CUSTOMERS; BANNED FROM MOVING INDUSTRY; PROCESS OF RECOVERING AND RETURNING MONEY AND PROPERTY TO OVER 100 VICTIMS OF SCHEME CONTINUES
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown today announced that the owners of five unlicensed moving companies have pleaded guilty to defrauding their customers by demanding excessive cash payments on moving day and wrongfully seizing and holding hostage household goods of customers who refused to pay the additional amounts of money. The defendants, who will be banned from the moving business, will also receive jail sentences and will be required to reimburse over 120 victims of the scheme and return their property.
District Attorney Brown said, "The defendants have admitted their guilt and acknowledged that they lured customers with false promises of low-cost moves, demanded exorbitant additional charges on moving day and carted away and held for ransom household possessions of customers who refused to pay the additional fees. They have agreed to get out of the moving industry and they will be jailed as punishment for their crimes. We are continuing our work to ensure that the victims of the scheme get back the money and property that was unlawfully taken from them."
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said, "These criminals thought they could take advantage of people by keeping their possessions and charging outrageous sums of money for their return. But officers from our Intelligence Division have ended their devious scheme, and brought everyone who was involved to justice."
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph H. Boardman said, "These guilty pleas send a strong message that illegal activities by licensed movers will not be tolerated. The Department, under the direction of Governor Pataki, will continue to work with local law enforcement agencies to protect consumers from unscrupulous movers."
Federal Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead said, "Once again I would like to commend District Attorney Brown and the local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for a job well done. It reinforces our message to those who would take advantage of consumers that their actions will not be tolerated."
Inspector General Mead again urged consumers to learn more about their rights through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s web site at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/factsfigs/rights.htm. Anyone who believes they have been victimized can call the FMCSA s toll free consumer hotline at 1-888-DOT-SADFT (1-888-368-7238).
The victims include over 90 individuals who were given a low estimate by the defendants and later were forced by them to pay a higher amount to obtain the release of their property and who subsequently filed complaints between November 2001 and June 2002 with the Queens District Attorney’s office, the New York State Department of Transportation or the United States Department of Transportation as well as 30 individuals whose property has been stored in a warehouses in Jamaica, Nevada and Texas which the defendants had refused to release.
District Attorney Brown said that so far 15 victims have received back their furniture and other household effects, including Timothy Erickson who had contracted with the defendants in September 2001 for a move from Connecticut to Washington State. Prosecutors referred him to a state Department of Transportation approved moving company which picked up his property in May from the defendants’ now defunct Jamaica warehouse and trucked it cross-country to his new home.
District Attorney Brown said, "We are continuing our efforts to ensure that property wrongfully taken and held hostage by the defendants is returned to its rightful owners. The prosecution of the defendants should serve as fair warning to others within the moving industry who would contemplate a similar shakedown scheme that law enforcement authorities are vigilant and determined to take swift and certain steps against wrongdoers."
District Attorney Brown identified the defendants as Daniel Mantoza, 37, his wife, Ronit Mantoza, 35, both of 148-47 61st Road in Flushing, Queens and their associate, Morad Alfar, 32, of 196-36 50th Avenue in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Their companies included Allstate Moving and Storage, On Budget Van Lines and Eilid Moving and Storage of 131-11 Atlantic Avenue in Jamaica as well as Online Moving and Storage and In & Out Moving and Storage at 1940 Deer Park Avenue in Deer Park in Suffolk County.
According to the State Department of Transportation, the guilty pleas by defendant Ronit Mantoza and the five companies represent the first instance in New York in which a moving company or an owner thereof has been convicted of a felony.
The defendants today each entered a plea of guilty before Criminal Court Judge Dorothy Chin-Brandt. Ronit Mantoza pled guilty to Attempted Enterprise Corruption, a felony, and will be sentenced to three months in jail and five years probation. Daniel Mantoza and Morad Alfar each pled guilty to Scheme to Defraud in the Second Degree, a misdemeanor, and will be sentenced to two and three months respectively in jail and three years probation.
The defendants admitted that they gave individuals low estimates for moves which they never intended to honor and that on moving day after they loaded a customer’s property onto their trucks and had it in their control demanded a price three to five times higher than the previously quoted amount and then threatened to withhold the property if they were not paid and in many cases, did withhold the property.
District Attorney Brown said that under existing law a licensed moving company is permitted to collect on the day of a move up to an additional 10% of the original estimate for interstate moves and up to an additional 25% for intrastate moves.
While the law allows licensed movers to retain a portion of the items moved to protect their lien, it prohibits movers from withholding delivery of all moved items pending resolution of fee disputes.
As a result of the prosecution, the defendants have also agreed to forfeit all property seized from them by authorities at the time of their arrest, including cash, jewelry, cars and trucks which will be sold at auction and the proceeds then used for restitution to victims.
In addition the defendants have agreed to:
District Attorney Brown said, "The plea agreement does not preclude consumers or others from suing the defendants or pursuing other civil remedies nor does it bar state and federal agencies from levying civil penalties and fines which are not discharge able in bankruptcy."
The District Attorney explained that the State Department of Transportation regulates moves within New York and that the Federal Department of Transportation regulates moves to and from other states.
District Attorney Brown expressed his appreciation to New York Police Department Intelligence Division Detective William Whelan and Sergeant Michael Liberator who were supervised by Deputy Chief Edmund Hartnett, Inspector John W. Cutter, Captain Francis Darsillo and Lieutenant John Billet; State Department of Transportation Investigators John Van Tassell and Jonathan NiCastro who were supervised by Counsel Robert Rybak under Commissioner Joseph Boardman; and United States Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General Special Agent Matthew Farrugia and Investigator Anthony Jacaruso who was supervised by Special Agent in Charge Ned Schwartz. District Attorney Brown also commended the assistance of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the United States Department of Transportation.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Diane M. Peress and Allen L. Bode and Consumer Representative Michael Albanesi of the District Attorney’s Economic Crimes Bureau under the supervision of Bureau Chief Brian J. Mich; Assistant District Attorneys Anthony M. Communiello and David S. Zadnoff of the District Attorney’s Civil Forfeiture Bureau and Lieutenant Robert Burke of the District Attorney’s Detective Squad under the supervision of Chief Edward T. Brady and Deputy Chief Lawrence J. Festa under the overall supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations Peter A. Crusco, Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Mansfield and Investigations Counsel Linda M. Cantoni.