HOUSTON -- A group of con artists posing as legitimate moving companies is targeting consumers across Houston with promises of low rates, only to eventually drive off with everything consumers own, according to police reports and state regulators.
The group has used a series of advertisements, that often appear well-produced, to draw customers in. State investigators now believe it’s all intended to lure people into a false sense of security shortly before being robbed.
Houston resident Jindu Okwuwa, 28, and his wife found out the hard way.
"We wanted to start off fresh, we wanted to move," he said.
So, just one week from their wedding day, the Okwuwas needed help with just a small one-mile move to a nearby apartment. Having successfully turned to Craigslist for moves in the past, the couple was struck by the professional nature of the ad they found for Olympus Moving this past August.
The company seemed to offer a local move for a fair price. It promised rates of $39.99 an hour for a minimum of two hours. They also stated in writing there were "no hidden fees." A consumer would get two movers at that rate, but could pay more per hour if they wanted additional labor, the ad stated. It even promised to include "shrink wrap" in every move to protect their items.
The Okwuwas, always careful consumers, still went online to do further research before hiring the company. They found a Olympus Moving & Storage website that touted a B+ rating with the Better Business Bureau that appeared to be their rating. The company provided an online link to the BBB’s website.
So, the Okwuwas were convinced they had found the right company to help, and invited Olympus Moving to their home.
However, they later learned that the movers they had contacted were not the same company they had discovered online. They ended up becoming the latest in a long line of consumers who would end their moves feeling scammed. The group they found online has filed complaints with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles about the group that has wrongfully assumed their name and identity in Texas.
In fact, state investigators now believe at least two key players in the group operating in Texas, are not only unregistered, but also have criminal convictions.
"We had TVs, we had a desktop, we had a bed," Okwuwa said.
They also had priceless personal possessions like family photographs that can never be replaced.
Okwuwa said when the movers showed up in person, they indeed dressed the part of real movers, appearing with matching T-shirts that had logos of the same moving company. It all helped to gain Okwuwa’s trust.
"I was like, ‘Wow these guys are so professional,’" he said.
Still, when moving supervisor Andy Bueno asked Okwuwa to sign a contract for services before they began moving, Okwuwa’s instincts kicked in. He said he began looking closely at the contract, only to be rushed by Bueno to sign away and told the contract was a simple formality required by the owner. Okwuwa decided to sign.
But once everything Okwuwa owned had been transferred to the moving truck and locked away, Okwuwa said the movers delivered a very different bill than the flat rate of $39.99 per hour he had expected.
"I looked at it and saw $1,700," he said. "I was like, but that’s not what me and you agreed on!"
When Okwuwa looked closer at his new bill, he noticed the bulk of the added charges were new fees for "shrink wrap." His movers, it seemed, were now charging $90 per item to wrap Okwuwa’s belongings in plastic, even though their written ad promised shrink wrap would be included in the move.
Okwuwa refused to pay, and said he knew at this point he was in the middle of a scam. Trouble is, the movers had the upper hand, because they now had possession of everything he owned.
But when he ultimately refused to pay, the movers drove off with everything the Okwuwas owned, including something very important for their big day that was coming up in just a week.
"They got our wedding rings," he said.
The Okwuwas said the movers took the rings even after they were specifically told to keep their hands off a jewelry bag.
But the Okwuwas are hardly alone.
"The ad says $100 and he’s asking for $2,300. It was theft in the daylight," said Musa Musallam.
Musallam is the president and chief executive officer of MNM Distribution Corporation, a company that has twice been named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s "Hot 100" as one of the fastest growing corporations in America.
He, too, hired a company called Olympus Moving to move some office furniture out of storage and into his corporate headquarters.
Musallam had responded to the same type of ad that lured the Okwuwas in, promising no hidden fees and shrink wrap in every move. The ad appeared with pictures and graphics that looked as if a professional company had designed it.
However, Musallam said the very same supervisor, Andy Bueno, pulled the very same stunt on him. First, they gained his trust, then they took possession of all of Musallam’s office furniture.?? Finally, as soon as it was all locked inside their truck, Musallam said Bueno once again inflated the bill with sky-high charges for shrink wrap.
When Musallam wouldn’t pay, the movers once again drove off with everything.
"You feel like somebody who is standing naked in the middle of Times Square, and somebody is raping you, and nobody can do anything," he said.
As a result, KHOU-TV-TV decided to set up an undercover sting operation in an attempt to document the movers in action. We contacted the Better Business Bureau of Houston, which agreed to have one of its investigators, Monica Russo, pose as a consumer.
KHOU-TV then acquired an apartment and purchased thousands of dollars worth of furniture.?? We bought a plasma TV, a designer couch, a coffee table, matching end tables, a TV stand, a kitchen table with matching chairs, and an entire bedroom set. In addition, the station added magazines and candles to the apartment, along with other items, to make the apartment appear lived in.
However, by the time KHOU-TV was ready to contact the movers, the Texas-based operation was no longer advertising moves online.
Instead, we discovered a new company on Craigslist had popped up, calling itself Express Moving Solutions. ??Express Moving Solutions appeared to be promising very similar things to what we had heard from the previous group: moves that included shrink wrap for $39.99 an hour and "no hidden fees."
When we called the company up in late September to hire them for a move, we weren’t surprised to see Andy Bueno appear at our front door.
"This’ll be nice and quick," Bueno told us.
The first problem: KHOU-TV had only hired two movers. Bueno brought many more to help him. When we insisted we only wanted to pay for two men Bueno promised we would not be paying extra for the additional labor.
Next, while we had hired "Express Moving Solutions," Bueno and crew showed up wearing matching T-shirts identifying them as movers, but working for "Victory Moving," yet another company.
Finally, beginning the move, Bueno did something else he’s done with nearly every consumer who has later complained: asked us to sign a contract. With us, he pointed out the top of the contract, where he had handwritten in the hourly rate of "$39.99 an hour" that we had seen in the written advertisements.
When we asked if we had to worry about any of the other terms in the contract, Bueno quickly instructed us to simply sign away.
However, we needed to clarify one more thing because we had actually hired the company to move us on a previous day. But in the days leading up to our move on Sept. 27, 2011, Express Moving Solutions couldn’t make it.
When we threatened to find a different mover, the man we spoke with on the phone insisted we stay with Express Moving Solutions. He even promised we would receive 50 percent off for our troubles.
When we asked Bueno about it all, he agreed he would honor the deal, and encouraged us to sign the contract.
"You go ahead … whatever. I’ll tell the owner at the end or whatever," Bueno said. "That’s … that’s fine. If he said it we gotta give it to you."
So, we signed the contract and took him at his word.
But, when we saw Bueno pull out the shrink wrap we had heard so much about, we made sure to once again make sure he did not intend to charge us extra for it.
KHOU-TV/BBB: Now the wrap and all that- they include that, right?
ANDY: It’s in the move.
But there is something else you may want to know about Bueno, a man state regulators say has been invited into countless homes in Houston and across Texas: it turns out in addition to moving people’s goods into his truck, he also has criminal convictions for charges like assault, criminal trespass, and weapons charges. What’s more, Bueno arrived for our move sporting tattoos on his body linking him to the "Houstones," part of the largest prison gang in Texas.
Another man who showed up to load the truck, Anthony Fanelli, has also been spotted at multiple moves in which consumers have ended up feeling scammed. Fanelli, it turns out, moved to Texas while on probation for a forgery conviction in New Jersey in 2004.
In less than an hour, the crew had packed up everything we had assembled in our apartment, moved it into their truck, and locked it away.
ANDY: Damn, we’re done. That’s about an hour. Not even.
KHOU-TV/BBB: That’s good for me, it’s cheaper.
But when we arrived at our destination, just a mile away, Bueno once again delivered an inflated bill.
"OK look, earlier I told you, that’s your quote," Bueno said while pointing to the contract we signed.
But now, he pointed us to the fine print of a section of the contract, which allowed him to charge $90 an item for shrink wrapping each item. The section seemed to directly conflict with the written ad we responded to and his verbal confirmation just moments before that shrink wrap would be included in the move.
Our bill had suddenly gone from a flat $39 an hour for a two-hour minimum, to more than $1,200. Included in that bill was a $900 charge for the plastic wrap.
When pressed to explain the discrepancy, Bueno told us, "We’re just the workers."??
He stated he knew nothing about any advertisements by Express Moving Solutions, and claimed that his company "Victory Moving," must have somehow been subcontracted to do the job.
Bueno said his company was demanding payment now in nothing but cash. He repeatedly encouraged our undercover consumer, who did not have enough cash on her, to contact family members and friends for a loan.
When he did not receive the cash, he threatened to load our furniture onto a semi truck which allegedly would be taken out of state. It was the same threat we had heard Bueno had made to both the Okwuwas and Musallam.
When we didn’t pay, once again, Bueno and his colleagues drove off, with all of our furniture in tow.
But little did Bueno know, this time, the KHOU 11 News I-Team had a surprise of our own in store.
Friday at 10 p.m. on KHOU 11News, the I-Team will widen our investigation and show you exactly where they really took our furniture. We will also introduce you to state regulators who say the same group has been pulling the same scam all across Texas for years. What’s more, we’ll reveal how Bueno and company have managed to continue to hit consumers while staying off the radar of prosecutors.
Important Note: The companies Bueno claimed to work for on our move (Express Moving Solution and Victory Moving) have no connection and are NOT the better-known national moving companies with similar names, which have headquarters in other states.
Note: KHOU 11 News would like to thank the Better Business Bureau and its President Dan Parsons for the generous help provided on this story, including the use of the BBB’s investigator Monica Russo during the undercover portion of our research.