– The Miami Herald
By Allie Pitchon
Date: February 19th, 2022
Proud American Vanlines called itself a moving company but customers say it functioned more like a kidnapping ring for furniture, abducting possessions and holding them hostage.
According to the Justice Department, the Fort Lauderdale-based company stole the identities of reputable moving companies and used them to lure in unsuspecting customers.
It allegedly covered its tracks by posting phony reviews on consumer websites praising its service. In fact, the feds say, the company would load up the truck with a customer’s possessions then jack up the price — threatening to auction off the goods unless the customer paid in full.
Friday the owners and operators of Proud American Vanlines were indicted for allegedly scamming customers out of over $12 million.
Matthew K. Pardi, 37, of Fort Lauderdale and Ashley Lynn Hars, 36, of Plantation were charged with wire fraud, interstate transportation of property obtained by fraud and aggravated identity theft, as well as holding customers’ belongings for ransom.
“With spring right around the corner and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, many Americans will be boxing up their belongings and moving to a new home that better suits their changed lifestyle,” said Jennifer Arbittier Williams,, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who charged Pari and Hars. “During what is typically a very stressful transition, consumers need to be able to rely upon the trustworthiness of the companies they hire to safeguard their valuables and transport them to their destination. We will continue to do everything we can to protect the public from fraudsters who employ illegal, extortionate tactics.”
The indictment alleges that Pardi and Hars — who falsely claimed that their company was family-owned and had been in business for over a decade — perpetuated the multi-million fraud scheme over the course of more than three years, during which they lured in customers by flooding their website with fake five-Star reviews and stealing the identities of legitimate companies, including American Eagle Moving, Titan Moving and Storage and Trans World Van Lines, among others.
Once customers booked their moving services and — more crucially — paid initial deposits, Pardi and Hars would raise the price of the move and tack on several additional fees. If a customer refused to pay the increased price, the indictment alleged, Pardi and Hars would keep the customer’s goods.
In fact, Proud American Vanlines’ Better Business Bureau page is rife with one-star reviews that outline a pattern of up-charging customers through “bait-and-switch” pricing, as well as complaints about weeks-late deliveries and damaged or missing goods.
“They bid $7,400 for a two-bedroom home for a full pack. Then, when they came to my home, they charged me $12,000,” one review said.
“$16K to $23K up-charge, delivery was 40 days after our desired date, and many boxes were only packed 1/2 to 2/3rds full,” another review stated.
“They up-charged me 60% after the movers arrived. They took my things 6 weeks ago. My stuff hasn’t even left my starting state yet. After a dozen emails with support I still have no eta for delivery,” a third person added. “Stay away from this company. They delete the bad reviews they get, up-charge you on the day of your move, and your things may never arrive. At this point I wish I could fly back across the country and just put all my stuff in a u-haul and drive it here myself. Zero stars. I hope these people end up in prison.”
The company left a trail of victims all over the country, the Justice Department said, including in Philadelphia, which is why the charges were filed there.
The case, which was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Nancy Rue.
If convicted, Pardi and Hars face fines of up to $6.25 million and a maximum possible sentence of more than 300 years in prison.
The Miami Herald reported in and about the pervasiveness of Florida moving scams, highlighting including the case of Richard and Christine Norman, who said their belongings were held hostage for months by an unscrupulous mover. The reporting found that companies were seldom held accountable.
Moving scams can be reported to the Florida Attorney General’s Office by calling 1 (866) 9NO-SCAM or filing a complaint online at http://myfloridalegal.com