HOUSTON - Moving can be one of the most stressful times in your life. Some Houston families turned to Local 2 Investigates after they had to call the police on their movers.
KPRC Local 2 discovered rogue companies hiring criminals to move families and getting around state laws meant to protect you.
When Nikki Howard hired a mover, S & S Starving Student Movers sent two ex-convicts to her home. Michael Reyes, 35, is a convicted drug dealer who also served time for assault. Nicolas Segura, 21, was convicted of theft.
Howard said both Segura and Reyes were in plain clothes and in an unmarked moving truck. But her first clue something was wrong was when she noticed the iPod that had been on her kitchen table was gone. When Howard asked the men if they had seen the iPod, they told her they had not. But when the movers were occupied, she went outside.
"I did peek in the van and I saw the iPod and a pair of my diamond earrings in the console," Howard said.
Howard discreetly called police who arrived just in time to find jewelry, electronics, prescription drugs and Howard's handgun all tucked away in the front seat.
"So he had found the gun quickly, loaded it himself and placed it in his truck underneath the front seat," Howard explained. "That is probably the scariest part of the story."
Her story ended when both men were arrested, charged and pleaded guilty to theft.
KPRC Local 2 discovered S & S Starving Student Movers' state license expired in June, but the company is still in business. We stopped by the business address for the company, which is a home on the west side of Houston.
"I want to know why you're hiring criminals to go into your customers' homes to move them," investigative reporter Amy Davis said to the man who identified himself as Shawn with the company. Shawn said he wasn't the hiring manager and then mumbled something else as he closed the door.
Local 2 met Robert Lawler of A-1 All Around Movers on the job. Customer Ashley Aranda called Local 2 Investigates two days after her move began, when she said movers refused to unload her belongings unless she paid nearly three times the price quoted on the phone.
"He's like, 'Well, we're going to tack on $350 a day and I can charge you every 15 minutes for another hour that you don't pay,'" Aranda recounted her exchange with Lawler and his movers to Davis. "I mean, just threat after threat after threat."
"Is this an honest way to make a living?" Davis asked Lawler.
"It's completely honest," he answered.
Lawler said Aranda didn't read her contract, but she's not the only one complaining. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Lawler's moving license in 2010 after similar complaints. The following year, his wife opened another moving business under her name.
"Robert, do you think the state realizes that you're still in the moving business seeing as how the business isn't in your name anymore?" Davis asked him.
"I'm not handling that. I'm talking about this individual," replied Lawler, referencing Aranda's case.
Even with the new business under his wife's name, the problems have persisted with A-1 All Around.
"They are all around bad people," said Dan Parsons, president of the Houston Better Business Bureau. "I say that with great confidence."
The BBB has received 56 complaints in the last three years on the Lawler's moving businesses. The state fined the company $30,000 and has already started the process to revoke its current license, but Parsons said consumers also have a responsibility to do their homework.
"I hate to say it, consumers, that big fat "F" has been sitting there a long time and that "F" does not mean fabulous," Parsons said.
Lawler told Local 2 he is trying to refund customers and settle claims, but he is closing his doors and not taking any new business.
How to Protect Yourself From a Bad Mover
These days most people who need to hire a mover go online to start their search. We discovered you can get off on the wrong track with that very first click.
S & S Starving Student Movers is the company that showed up at Howard's home, but that's not who she thought she had hired. She says she had googled a company called 3 Men Movers, and she dialed the number on the website that popped up.
"Clearly, the next day when they got there, it was not 3 Men Movers," Howard told Davis.
"Anybody can pay to have their brand show up on the page search results of some of these search engines," said Mitch Gonzalez of the real 3 Men Movers.
Gonzalez says some companies go as far as creating a bogus website with a real number to mislead customers into calling.
"Very slick, very slick... very scary to know that they can manipulate people at a time when they are the most vulnerable," Gonzalez said.
But Dan Parsons with the Houston Better Business Bureau says even if you have checked out a company before you hire them doesn't mean you should let your guard down.
"You hired XYZ," explains Parsons. "We're due at 9 o'clock tomorrow and truck ABC shows up. Hold it. There's nothing that says you can't say, 'No, I want to find out what's going on.'"
New rules require every mover to have state and federal licensing numbers printed on their truck and their contracts. Howard's movers did, but if she would have checked the licensing numbers online, she would have discovered the license had expired two months earlier. Check licensing numbers online at http://apps.dot.state.tx.us/apps/mccs/mccs_frame_search_collector.htm.
If a mover is trying to hold your items hostage for additional payment, you should call police. A new law that took effect this year allows police to request certain information from movers. If the movers can't or won't provide it, they can get a ticket with a hefty fine.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.