Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Movers caught in state sting (The Asbury Park Press)

Movers caught in state sting
4:11 PM, Jul. 5, 2011

Written by
Bill Bowman | Staff Writer

BRIDGEWATER — Lazar Berkat was philosophical about the predicament in which he found himself.

The Glen Ridge resident on June 28 had just been pulled into a parking lot off Van Veghten Drive where he was greeted by a New Jersey State Trooper and investigators from the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

Berkat was one of 17 unlicensed movers who were caught last week in a four-day sting operation codenamed “Operation Mother’s Attic.” Those 17 and an additional eight moving companies which did not show up at the sting site face fines of $2,500 each for either operating an unlicensed moving company, or using trucks in their operations which are not registered with DCA.

Included in that list were three companies from the central New Jersey area: A Van and a Hand of North Plainfield, Premiere Relocation Services of Edison and and a company that simply advertised as “James,” operating out of Asbury Park.

The companies were contacted by DCA investigators posing as consumers who needed items moved from a self-storage facility to a house. They were told to show up at specific times from June 27 through June 30.

The companies were contacted through ads on Craig’s List and other websites, according to a DCA spokesman.

Berkat was one of the 17 who kept his appointment.

“Of course, it’s good to be licensed,” Berkat said with a smile as he reviewed the material he was given by the DCA investigator.

The $2,500 fine facing each mover caught in the sting would be halved if they license their businesses and register their vehicles within 30 days of the violation.

State law requires that all companies that provide point-to-point moving services within New Jersey be licensed through the DCA and carry the proper insurances.

“Last year alone, the Division of Consumer Affairs received nearly 160 consumer complaints against moving companies,” Thomas R. Calcagni, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, said in a press release about the operation. “In many instances, predatory movers arbitrarily jacked up the total cost of a move by as much as 1,000 percent over bogus estimates, and then held hostage consumers’ belongings until the outrageous billing demands were met.”

“The bad actors don’t just harm consumers – they harm the reputation of an entire industry,” he said in the release. “By requiring movers to be licensed, we’re requiring accountability.”

Berkat was caught in the net at about 2:40 p.m. on the operation’s second day. The sting that day was started at about 10 a.m.

Berkat said he had just recently begun operating as a mover and was not aware that a license was required.

“I work for my kids to help them,” he said.

Now that he knows he needs to be licensed, Berkat said, he’s happy to do so.

“I don’t want to do this again,” he said.

Not every driver was as easygoing as Berkat.

A driver who did not want to be identified was pulled into the lot about two hours before Berkat, driving a truck emblazoned with electronics retailer P.C. Richard and Son’s logo.

The driver worked for Premiere Relocation Services, which contracts with P.C. Richard to drive P.C. Richard-owned trucks.

Trooper Marc Passarella -- one of two troopers assigned to the detail -- later said that the driver finished his P.C. Richard deliveries, then decided to use the truck to make some extra money on the side.

The trooper said he spoke to a P.C. Richard representative who said the company “didn’t want to press charges, they were more concerned about getting their truck back.”

DCA spokesman Neal Buccino said that although Premiere is a licensed moving company, a citation was issued because the P.C. Richard truck was not licensed for moving.

Trooper Michael Miller was also on hand to do truck inspections and make sure the drivers’ credentials were in order.

It was one such credential check that resulted in the arrest of an unidentified moving company employee on an outstanding warrant from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The man was a passenger in a truck driven by Francisco Belmonte of Bayonne. Miller said a routine check of his identity resulted in a message that he was to be held for ICE.

Belmonte, who said he was aware that he was supposed to have a license to be a mover, but never completed the application, said he had no idea that his friend was wanted on immigration charges.

As for his citation, Belmonte said he deserved it.

“You break the law, you have to pay,” he said.

Two movers who attempted to flee the sting were cornered in a nearby parking lot, Buccino said in a press release about the operation.

The stings accomplished their purpose, Calcagni said on June 28. The director was there to witness the operation.

“What you’ve seen here today underscores the importance of knowing who you’re hiring,” he said.

Calcagni said he hoped the citations would send a message to other unlicensed movers in the state.

“That’s really the whole point of this,” he said.

“If you’re going to operate as a mover in New Jersey, you have to comply with our licensure laws,” Calcagni said.

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