Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
“Moving is among the most stressful things Americans ever experience—not least because it often involves extortion.”
“I wrote the piece because it was stranger than fiction, at least any fiction I’d ever read,” writes Marshall Poe, a history professor at the University of Iowa and a former writer and editor for The Atlantic. Poe hired a moving company to help ease his transition from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. He had hoped for a straightforward move—boxes, trucks, and an exchange of money for services. What he got was a lot of hassle, a colorful cast of shady characters, and a significantly smaller bank balance. He was swindled, and he knows he’s not alone: “I think a lot of people have had this (sorry) experience,” he writes. “And it’s better to laugh than cry.” -Elizabeth Minkel
One day last year I was ambling absent-mindedly along First Avenue in New York City when a well dressed teenager, completely out of his mind, came running at me, screaming “He took my fucking money! He took my fucking money!” Being in New York, I quickly walked away (can’t be too careful…). A few feet later I understood what had so upset this nice young fellow: there stood a clutch of people huddled tightly around a spark plug of a man shifting cups with mechanical rapidity. I had witnessed this con many times, and knew to avoid it. In fact, I had often wondered if there was anyone left on God’s paved earth who didn’t know to avoid it. Apparently there was.
Several days ago, I called “National Moving Network” to transport my things from Cambridge to D.C. They certainly seemed reputable: big web page (which had won an award!), toll-free numbers, testimony from satisfied customers, promises to move my things even if they had to move heaven and earth to get the job done right. The very moment I heard the confident tone of my “Senior Move Advocate” Mike, I was hooked. Literally. How could I have been so stupid? “A sucker is born…” “A fool and his money…” Now stop it. That’s not very helpful. You’re hurting my feelings.
All over America, there are move consolidators like National running the largest, most technically sophisticated, most coercive bait and switch operation the world has ever seen. They are the devils of moving hell, and this is the story of how I got forked by them.
My “senior move advocate” was a can-do kind of guy, the sort of fellow who makes you feel like he is going to do the job personally just for you. Could he do the move in four days? Tight, but no problem. He’d pull some strings just for me. Could he give me an accurate estimate of the costs? Sure, “We have a computer (that’s right, a computer!) that figures the costs based on the information you provide me.” Will the final costs be reasonable? Absolutely, the entire mission of National Moving Network is to provide me with an unbeatable price! How do they do it? Volume! National offers the job to hundreds of established professional movers around the country. By the end of this masterful pitch, I would have purchased my next move from my senior move advocate. He probably would have sold it to me.
So I was ready to do the deal. My senior move advocate said there were just a few technicalities to dispense with and my “trouble free” move would be underway! Mike took an inventory of my apartment. He was very insistent that I list every item to ensure that the estimate was as accurate as possible. He asked about the weight of boxes, dimensions of beds, height of floor lamp. It seemed like he wanted to know everything down to the number, size, and weave of my dirty socks. This was a taxing mental exercise. Only street people know what they own, and this tidbit of information does them no good because they never have to hire movers. I confessed to my trusty senior move advocate that I might miss this or that, or might even list something that I wanted to own but couldn’t afford (just to show off). He told me not to worry, but I remained a bit anxious. I felt like a contestant waiting to learn what’s behind door number two. Come on down!
Ah, but my experienced senior move advocate, like a doctor diagnosing a sick patient, knew just what to do to calm my nerves. He’d seen cases like mine hundreds of times before, and recognized the condition: incipient caveat emptor, compounded by inflamed Sticker-Shockitis, probably resulting in fatal Dealus Terminus. The medicine required was clearly a “Low Ball,” or, to use the generic name for this powerful drug, “Absurdly-Low-Bid-Given-In-Bad-Faith.” Of course, the Low Ball has been banned by the FDA. Its clinical trials went badly several thousand years ago, resulting in the death of scores of Roman citizens. But my senior move advocate knew that only the Low Ball could save the buyer’s will to do the deal, so he administered a massive dose, or, as it says in the DSM, “enough to sell a bridge.” I recall how quickly my anxiety vanished as the words “twenty-three hundred dollars” passed his lips. They were a soothing balm, an elixir, the very water of life. I’d moved the year before and it had cost about three grand. My senior move advocate, true to his word and the admirable aim of his enterprise, was indeed saving me hundreds of dollars. What a deal!
So there it was: the bait. I had it in my mouth but Mike had not yet set the hook. I was wriggling around a bit, and my senior move advocate knew it. So he rapidly proceeded to the “contract.” Now, I’m an American. I know what a contract is. It’s a deal, an agreement, a meeting of minds. In what seemed like seconds, Mike had faxed me the contract. It consisted of one page. It said in very big print that my “Total Charges” would be $2,330, that my “Deposit” was $800, and that the “Balance Due” was $1,530. Yup, that’s just what Mike, my trusted friend (we’d grown very close) said it would cost.
I read the fine print with the assistance of an electron microscope. Hmm…National wasn’t the mover after all. They were a “broker” and I was paying them to “obtain the services of a moving company.” Well, that’s what Mike had hinted when he explained how they were able to get such low prices: moving companies bid on the jobs. Right. Capitalist competition at work for the social good, as represented by me. And there was mention of “terms on the reverse side of this Contract.” Well, the contract was faxed, and though I’m no technical wizard, I know faxes are single sided. I looked to make sure. Nothing. Well, I agree to nothing. I looked for additional pages. None. Surely Mike, being a very careful and conscientious move advocate, ever working in my interests, would have sent the complete contract. But Mike didn’t say anything about conditions and said he was sending the entire contract. He also said that confirmation would be sent by FedEx the same day. Seemed legitimate, and in any case I had Mike on my side. I signed and faxed the page back, together with a copy of my driver’s license and credit card.
The hook was set, and National reeled me in. My card was immediately charged $800 and I never heard from Mike again. I called to talk to him the next day when I didn’t receive the FedEx (which I never received). Strangely, I was informed that he didn’t work at National Moving Network anymore. This was hard for me to understand. He had been such a good-hearted senior move advocate, and such a nice young man. I was going to suggest that he marry my sister…
The next thing I knew, some strange men began to call me demanding to know where I lived. “Tell us where you live!” they screamed. I thought that the call might have had something to do with some shady business a friend of mine was involved in (the KGB, silver ingots, a man with one arm, and a girl names Varvara—you don’t want to know). Nope, it was just the movers screaming into a bad cell phone. Once I cleared this up, I tried to guide them in from D.C. Failing, I passed them off to my wife, who was to supervise the move in Cambridge. “Tell us where you live!” they screamed. A bit frightened, my wife explained the route. But the driver, oddly, didn’t want the route. “Tell us where you live!” he screamed again. So she gave him the address and he promptly hung up. This ritual was repeated several times, convincing my wife that the driver’s command of English consisted of five words uttered in the same unwavering order. Finally, they showed up. What followed was, with due apologies to the people of China, a Chinese Fire Drill. Mike, in his unstinting effort to advocate on my behalf, promised that he would call the supervisor of my building in Cambridge to set things up. Um, he must have forgotten, because the super was caught unawares and was none too happy. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but in the end the truck was parked and the movers went to work.
They worked hard, quickly loaded the truck with our life’s possessions, and then presented my wife with another contract to sign, this one from “Access Van Lines, Inc.” We had never heard of Access Van Lines, but if Mike said they were good, well they had to be tip-top! The contract clearly stated that the “Prior Total Costs” were $2,330 and that we’d paid an $800 deposit. There was only one hitch. Among the conditions to which my wife was to agree was one stating: “Payments must be made in Cash or with a U.S. Postal Money Order payable to Access Van Lines, Inc.” Odd. Mike had said that we were to pay the balance when the move was done (standard practice), but he didn’t say anything about cash, the National contract didn’t say anything about cash, and National had my credit card number and had already charged it 800 bucks. And who the hell runs around with $1,500 in cash money? So she refused to check the line next to the cash provision. The driver said that there would be no problem, that we could pay some or all of the bill on a credit card. Very reasonable. My wife signed, and away they went with everything we own. Not before, I should add, they had both extracted a hundred dollar tip from us. A tip, they explained, was part of the deal. Okay, they were hard working boys just trying to make a living, like something in a Bruce Springsteen song. It would be un-American not to tip them!
Having learned about the weird request for cash, I called National to ask if we could pay with a credit card, personal check, or something other than cash. I asked for Mike. No more Mike. So Mike was replaced as my advocate by a nice young lady named Sangel. She said she understood why I wouldn’t want to walk around the streets of Washington, D.C. with hundreds of dollars in cash, but that there was nothing she could do. My business, she explained, was done with National. But, I protested, what about the credit card, and the $800 payment, and the promise of undying fealty proffered by my advocate and personal friend Mike? Sweet, sweet Sangel said that National couldn’t help me; I had to call Access to arrange payment. I felt like a jilted lover. How could trusty Mike betray me? How could the lovely Sangel kick me to the curb? In utter desperation, I asked Sangel to have a supervisor call me. She must have forgotten, because strangely, that call was never returned. The memory is fragile indeed, particularly when it involves fraud.
I called Access and spoke with the president of the company, Daniel. I could tell by his accent that he was one of an army of hard-working Israeli movers who dominate the industry on the East Coast. One day they are fighting the Palestinians on the West Bank, the next day they are fighting traffic on the LIE. You learn a lot of useful things in the Israeli Army. Politeness is not one of them. Daniel and I did not, shall we say, hit it off. I asked him if I could pay with a credit card, as his driver had said. He was plainspoken in a way that you very rarely hear in modern America: he said that if I didn’t pay him the full amount in cash upon delivery, then my things wouldn’t be delivered. So jarring was this well-constructed, telegraphically clear, heavily accented sentence that it nearly knocked me senseless. I was offering to give him money and he was refusing. Is nothing sacred? Not even money? It is hardly surprising that the people of Israel are suspicious; they’ve had a hard time for a number of years now—and they have my full sympathy. But demanding cash, and large amounts of it, suggests only two things: paranoia or criminal activity. I watch TV. I know about these things. Daniel and his crew, I thought, couldn’t be criminals, so they must be mad. The moving industry, I was beginning to understand, was organized by crooks and worked by madmen. Seems like a good business model, sort of like the Post Office.
Daniel and I got into a heated exchange that went something like this:
“Daniel, I want to pay you the full amount, but I want to put it on credit card. I’ll even pay you now before the delivery.”
“What the problem, Marshall? You pay me cash and I deliver you things!”
“But Daniel, it’s really not customary to ask for that amount in cash. I’ll pay by credit card, or how about wire transfer?”
“What the problem Marshall? You pay me cash and I deliver you things!”
Clearly I was getting nowhere. Daniel, in contrast, was making good headway by deploying the deadly “Israeli Repetition Torture.” This technique was developed by the Mosad to break down the enemies of the Israeli state. It works. No matter what I said, Daniel simply shouted the word “cash” back at me. After a while, my nerves were beginning to fray and I had a powerful urge to confess that I really wanted to pay him cash, and a lot of it. When he knew he had me just where he wanted me, he dropped the bomb.
Apparently Mike had underestimated the weight of my possessions. And not just by a little: whereas Mike’s infallible algorithm predicted that my stuff would weigh 5,100 pounds, the actual weight was over twice that. “Overage” is very expensive in the moving trade, for obvious reasons (that’s where the profit is). The job that was to have cost me $2,330 now was billed at $4,790. Suddenly Daniel’s vocabulary expanded to include the words “three thousand nine hundred and ninety dollars,”—the difference between the total and the $800 deposit—followed like night follows day by the mantra “in cash.” Upon hearing this, I told Daniel that I had resolved to do two things: not to pay him that amount and to get into the moving industry pronto because it was such a racket. He was, well, pissed off, and he repeated the tried and true Israeli dictum “no cash, no stuff.” How, I queried, could the estimate be off by so much? His answer was, again, admirably straightforward: “I don’t care about estimate. It not my estimate. I weigh truck and you pay cash. What the problem, Marshall?”
Now I was in a pickle. The Israelis had taken my stuff hostage and were demanding a ransom of almost 4,000 bucks. Since I’d just moved to D.C., I didn’t have that kind of cash in a local account. I called my bank in Cambridge to see if they’d wire the money. Yup, they’d do it, but I’d have to be there in person. I explained my plight to the representative, but they were unmoved. Thank God. Imagine the scams the National Moving Networks of the world would run if one could wire money by phone! Out of options, I decided to call National back to get the straight dope on my estimate.
I called the lovely Sangel again, and put the question to her: why was the estimate so far off? National, like many shady businesses, carefully screens its employees for honesty, fairness, and openness. That is, if you have any of these qualities, you need not apply. Sangel was a pro. She was taught to deploy what the military calls a “defense in depth.” If one stonewalling tactic didn’t work, she had another right behind it. I had already penetrated the “I’ll have my manager call you” line. Now she arrayed, in succession, “It’s only an estimate,” “You lied about what was in the apartment,” and “You signed a contract.” I tried to reason with Sangel, but like a bear in the woods, she knew not reason. I tried to appeal to Sangel’s moral sense, but, like a tiger on the prowl, she knew not morality. I pled with Sangel in an attempt to enliven pity, but like a lion at the neck, she knew not pity. In a word, Sangel was an outstanding employee and I would gladly recommend her to any semi-criminal organization attempting to hide its affairs from public scrutiny. Her coup de grace was the claim that the identity of the company’s president “was a secret.” Sangel is a keeper.
Sangel moved me back to square one by claiming that her supervisor would call me. Oddly, that call never came. I rung Sangel up again, and this time I sensed a bit of frustration in her voice. For, if you think about it, she had failed in her mission to make me go away. Doubtless she’ll hear about this at her next review (“What? No raise? But I lied to him just like to told me to!”). In any event, she put me through to her kapo, a woman named Nancy. I imagine Nancy is known in the office as “The Stopper,” for she is assigned cases that need to be dispatched “with extreme prejudice.” The woman is a cold-blooded predator, and I love her for it. She ate me for breakfast and was left unsatisfied. The image that most readily comes to mind is a cat playing with a bird it has captured and wounded. After a while—and she really stayed with me—it was just for sport.
Her general tactic was simply to imply that I was an idiot (true) and a liar (false). It was my fault that Mike didn’t send me the complete contract; I should have asked him for the mysterious second page (which I didn’t know about…). It was my fault that the estimate was low; I must have deceived the ever-trustworthy Mike in an attempt to defraud National (the estimates were accurate “99%” of the time, she claimed). Access Van Lines demand for a king’s ransom in cash was my problem; National assumes no responsibility (for anything, ever). She too, had a shining moment, one that possibly recommends her for the Best Employee of a Fraudulent Company Award (they call these the “Connies” in the trade). I asked her whether she thought it was fair to treat customers as she was treating me, to which she responded: “Fairness has nothing to do with it.” I guess I shouldn’t wonder. Nancy told me she was a journalism major in college.
Hoping against hope, I decided to make one last run at National. I called the main office and asked to speak to the president of the company, Danny (Nancy had let that state secret slip in a moment of absentmindedness).
“Hello, can I speak to Danny please?”
“What’s this regarding?”
“A move arranged by National.”
“Danny does not take calls from customers.”
I was referred to Danny’s legal council, a lawyer without a telephone number or office, just a fax and PO box. I imagine both Danny and his legal council, though eager to serve the public faithfully, don’t have much interest in actual contact with the public. Could be dangerous given their line of work.
It was now about 3 p.m. and I was desperate: Nancy “You-Signed-A-Contract” had dispatched me to the oblivion of “legal council,” and Daniel “No-Cash-No-Delivery” was still screaming “Cash!” The truck was due at 5 p.m. and I didn’t have the money. The thing about fraud and extortion is that, well, it often works. I decide to take an advance against my credit card and just pay Daniel and co. But time was short. For reasons that are obscure to me, they still take the notion of “banker’s hours” seriously in our nation’s capital. The vast majority of banks close at 3 o’clock, including mine. It was exactly 2:50. I sprinted to my bike and, risking life, limb, and the pursuit of happiness, I road like a demon to Sun Trust. I made it just as they were locking the doors. I stood in line, dripping with sweat, repeating, “It’s only a dream, it’s only a dream…”
At the window I announced in a hushed tone that I wanted to take four thousand dollars cash against my credit card. The kindly lady behind the two-inch thick Plexiglas window yelled, “Speak up young man!” I turned about nervously and repeated what I’d said a bit louder. “I can’t hear a word you’re saying!” came the reply from the transparent armor plating. Finally I just said, loudly, “I want four thousand dollars cash against my credit card!” This time she heard me, and so did everyone else in the bank.
Now, you have to understand that in D.C., the murder capital of the U.S. and home to the “Crackheads Association of America” (they lobby for crackhead rights), that kind of talk can get you killed. When the pipe calls a hardcore addict (like Marion Barry), you damn well know that there is going to be an answer. And the Marion Barrys of the world, having heard the call, are going to find the crack money come hell or high water. I bought a bike recently. The guy who sold it to me said that crackheads would probably steal the reflectors. How the heck do you turn a reflector into crack? Crackheads are very resourceful people, veritable alchemists. So it doesn’t even take a very accomplished crackhead (or ordinary thief) to figure out how to turn four grand of long green into the poison of their choice. What, me worry?
Happily, I didn’t have to face walking around the streets of D.C. with four large in my pocket and a target painted on my back, for someone was looking out for my interests. Visa of course refused to approve the charge. Being clever folk, they knew that I was not in the habit of suddenly requesting many thousands of dollars in cash in a city that, for all they knew, I didn’t live in. Who takes a $4000 cash advance against a credit card? Only a credit card thief. I ran back to the office and called Visa. Once I had been through options 1 through 12, entered my 87 digit Visa card number, and pressed the pound sign, I learned something remarkable: my call was important to Visa. Being on hold with a credit card company is a bit like being in purgatory—you don’t know whether you are going to heaven or hell.
After a bit, a customer service representative appeared and asked me a lot of personal questions. This took some time, as we’d moved, had different addresses, different phone numbers, and they had my wife’s mother’s maiden name wrong. But, at long last, we began to talk turkey. Would they approve the advance? A protracted negotiation ensued, the result of which was positive. Credit card in hand, I sprinted again to my bike and road in the direction of banks I hoped would be open till five. I finally found one, at about 5:05.
The Israeli army was now on the outskirts of Washington, and I didn’t have and couldn’t get the ransom for my things. I mustered up all the courage I possessed and called Daniel.
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