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Frosh fines, grounds mover that held goods ‘hostage’

The Maryland attorney general’s office has ordered a Hyattsville-based moving company to pay more than $470,000 in penalties, including repayment to customers it cheated by refusing to complete delivery of their partially moved goods unless they paid a fee unlawfully in excess of that listed in the original estimate.

Swift Van Lines will also be barred from providing moving services until it completes the repayments, provides a $75,000 bond for future customers and acquires necessary licenses, under the July 18 order from the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

“Swift Van Lines repeatedly violated the law,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in a statement Tuesday. “It held consumer goods hostage, forcing people to go without vital medication, medical devices, beds and the household items of everyday life. This order requires Swift to pay back the customers they cheated.”

Swift has the right to appeal the administrative order to circuit court. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of the order.

Neither Swift nor its owner, Juan Carlos Martinez, could be reached for comment Tuesday as the telephone number listed with the Better Business Bureau was not in service.

In its order, the Consumer Protection Division said the company violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act and the Maryland Household Goods Movers Act.

The laws require movers to provide customers with either a binding or non-binding estimate. In non-binding estimates, the movers may not ultimately charge more than 125 percent of the estimate.

Movers can never refuse to deliver goods once they are placed on the truck, even if the payment due is in dispute.

The Consumer Protection Division, in adopting Administrative Law Judge John L. Leidig’s findings and conclusion, said Swift had provided customers with lowball estimates – to win the contract – but then demanded more money while the goods were en route.

Swift “waited to spring their increased prices on consumers until they were in possession of at least some of the consumers’ goods, and then used that as leverage to secure payment of the substantially increased bills,” the order stated. “Most glaringly, (Swift’s) lack of good faith is shown by the fact that if consumers refused to pay (Swift’s) illegally inflated prices, (Swift) refused to deliver the consumers’ goods, without any regard for the hardship the consumers would face as a result.”

The division cited instances in which a customer with diabetes and high-blood pressure waited days for Swift to deliver needed medication because of a payment dispute and another customer was without his work clothes for a week because Swift refused to complete delivery without payment in full.

Swift also falsely told customers it was accredited by the Better Business Bureau and that it was ranked No. 1 by Angie’s List – when the company had in fact received a failing mark from the BBB and Angie’s List does not rank companies with a number, the division said in ordering Swift to stop making erroneous claims.

The division ordered Swift to pay a civil fine of $252,500, which represents a $250 penalty for each of its 1,010 violations of the Consumer Protection Act; an initial restitution payment of $200,000; agency costs of $13,095.45 for investigating and prosecuting the company; and $5,000 to pay the procedural costs for customers seeking restitution.

The division also ordered Swift to include in clear type on its nonbinding estimates a statement that the customer’s rights include not being required to pay more than 125 percent of the estimate and that the company “may not refuse to deliver your goods for any reason after they have been loaded on the truck. Apart from your deposit, we may not charge you any amount until your goods are fully unloaded.”

The statement must also inform the customer of their right to call the Consumer Protection Division with any questions or concerns at (888) 743-0023.

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