JACKSON METRO AREA, MS (WLBT) - Dozens of people all over the country say they were charged thousands of dollars more than they should have been by a moving company.
Some claim they never got their belongings back.
Now, one military family's ordeal has drawn the attention of federal authorities, investigating a business that claims to have ties right here in the Jackson metro.
"I said that they were holding my goods hostage, and the reply was, 'nobody was holding a gun to your head, making you put them onto the truck,'" said Josh Taffer, who recently moved to Mississippi.
Weeks after he selected a moving company to transport everything his family owned to the Magnolia State, he found himself inside a nightmare.
"Everybody's telling me that what they're doing is illegal, but nobody's telling me how I can do anything," Taffer said.
It started four months ago in North Carolina, when Taffer went online to find the best deal from a variety of companies.
"I went on a time span where I probably got 10 or 20 phone calls in the matter of a half hour, and one of those lucky people was with Spartan Van Lines," Taffer said.
Taffer said one of their representatives -- Scott -- put him at ease, even telling him they had an office in Flowood.
"They're gonna, you know, keep costs low. 'We're gonna do everything we can to help you,'" he said.
The company did so without ever stepping foot inside his house, instead estimating how much the Taffers had to move over the phone.
"They do it by asking questions. 'We've been doing this for a long time. We're experts. We'll go through...do you have a queen sized bed, a king-size bed? Bed rails?' We went through everything," he said.
Spartan estimated Taffer had 1,430 cubic feet that had to be moved, and quoted him an estimate of $5,061.73.
Spartan's estimate stood out because it was almost half what the other companies planned to charge, so Taffer agreed.
Days later, the price changed.
"He came back and gave me an estimate with a 10 percent buffer on it, because he didn't want me to go over, right?" Taffer said. "And so that estimate, the figure, moved from $5,000 up to $6,400. I was pretty upset, you know. How are you gonna do this to me three days before I have to move?"
Taffer called again and Scott assured him that the 10 percent was just a precaution.
If Taffer didn't go over that estimate, he didn't have to pay, the company said.
"I was supposed to have four movers to pack my three-bedroom house, in uniform, in a Spartan truck, supposed to be nice," Taffer said.
Instead, two movers showed up in an Enterprise box truck, wearing raggedy clothes, according to Taffer.
"That's when everything really fell apart," Taffer said.
As they started packing -- and requested more employees to help move everything -- Taffer noticed the truck running out of room.
"The truck is 1,850 cubic feet. I was quoted for 1,400, my buffer with them," Taffer said. "'It won't go over this. We promise. I have 19 years of experience.'"
The Spartan crew told him they'd need a second truck to get the rest, but assured Taffer he'd only be charged a "little extra."
He ended up being billed for 1,000 extra cubic feet at $6 per cubic foot.
"My grand total came up to a little over $15,000," Taffer said.
When the movers initially arrived, Taffer said they told him he would have to sign the contract before they could start moving.
The contract contained his original estimate.
Taffer said once they had to get a second vehicle, the driver put all those extra charges on top of the contract Taffer had already signed, saying these were "goods added in" and he had to pay.
"I gave him a check for $3,400 [70 percent of the original estimate as agreed] and said you're not getting any more than that and that was it," Taffer said. "I remember my wife and I looking at each other and wondering if that was the last time we were ever gonna see every single thing we owned."
After the family drove to Mississippi, they stopped in Flowood to confront the company that still hadn't delivered any of their belongings.
That's when the realization dawned on them both: a Regus office building sits at that address, housing law offices and medical services.
A quick review of the building's tenants showed no Spartan Van Lines listed there.
Despite that, email correspondence and websites housing information about Spartan still shows the Flowood location as active.
"The paperwork says Doyletown, Pennsylvania. We're showing, you know, 232 Market Street, Flowood. They're showing they have locations in Chicago, in Orlando," said John O'Hara of the Better Business Bureau serving Mississippi.
3 On Your Side searched hundreds of public records and found a Spartan Van Lines in Miami, Florida, but, according to the paperwork, it had only been in business for about a year.
The Department of Transportation number Spartan shows on its website actually belongs to a company called Moving Systems Inc., based on Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
In the last two years, Moving Systems Inc. has had 22 DOT inspections, 13 with violations ranging from speeding to improper documentation.
Three of those involved employees driving more than the 14-hour duty period mandated by federal law.
"They've kind of been changing names every so often, the name of the company. So that's a lot of red flags," O'Hara said. "We have over 70 complaints on this company."
O'Hara said those complaints are from all over the U.S., and the Taffers' situation would be the first from a resident of Mississippi.
Those complaints are being handled in Pennsylvania, O'Hara explained, and he said Spartan is also being investigated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
When DOT first contacted Taffer, an investigator said Spartan was claiming Taffer authorized the revised $15,000 estimate because he signed it.
There's one problem: Taffer said he never did that.
"As soon as I saw that document, I said, 'I've never seen this before.' And then as it got to the bottom, I saw a signature that looked like mine," Taffer said.
Taffer pointed out similarities between a bill of lading he actually signed and the one he claims was a forgery.
"I now have physical proof on my side that they are not doing fair business acts. I don't know what moving can legally be allowed to do with DOT numbers and jacking up prices but I know it's against the law to forge somebody's signature on a contract," Taffer said.
3 On Your Side reached out to Spartan to ask about these concerns.
Susan, who identified herself as a customer service representative but refused to give a last name, said she had no knowledge of any forgery.
As far as she knew, Taffer signed the contract.
Susan also said Taffer should have called the company to dispute the new charges instead of signing the contract.
Susan also said they ended up having to move nearly twice what they had estimated because Taffer simply had too much stuff.
"Now that I have a forged signature, you're gonna have to back that down to where we agreed upon, because I have proof now that you're a liar," Taffer said.
After federal investigators got involved, Spartan dropped its $15,000 price tag by $3,000.
When we talked to Susan on Monday, she said the price dropped once again because of a driver error that forced the company to go back to the original estimate promised to Taffer months ago: little more than $5,000.
However, she initially said she had no information on what that error was or why it resulted in a $10,000 reduction in price by Spartan.
That changed after this story originally aired.
Susan called and told us that the driver error stemmed from the fact that the company had not gotten Taffer's wife, Anna, to sign any of the paperwork.
"His wife is the one that was available at the time of the delivery. She's the one who authorized the work," Susan said one day after our investigative piece aired.
However, that directly contradicts what Josh Taffer had already told us, that his wife watched the kids while he handled the moving duties.
You can read Susan's complete remarks at the bottom of this story.
O'Hara thinks the timing of that "driver error" sounds a little too convenient.
"These people who do this unscrupulous bait-and-switch tactics, this is something they're good at. They send out emails to people that give you tips on what you should ask a mover. One of the tips they give is the person should come to your house to give an estimate," O'Hara said. "The tips contradict what happened in this move based on the paperwork that I've seen."
Susan said the company plans to deliver the Taffers' belongings sometime this month after the original bill has been paid.
At this point, Spartan said the Taffers owe around $1,500.
What follows is a partial transcript of the phone call between Susan and 3 On Your Side, which took place Monday, July 16.
At the start of the interview, Susan gave a lengthy statement, and then the questions began.
Susan: It is my understanding that the shipper had provided some details to get an estimate for service to be performed, and when we arrived, the circumstances were dramatically different. We had initially estimated him for 1,400 cubic feet. That's the space that we would be using in the truck, and that space was calculated by a certain inventory that he provided to us. Now, he signed off on this inventory, we provided him a cost for service, and when we arrived, it was dramatically over what we had estimated him.
Now, when I had the opportunity to speak to him, he said he was just absolutely shocked at the increase in cost, and I asked what happened with the gentleman on site. Didn't they work this out with him? And he told me that it wasn't really pressed. He went ahead and let them work and signed for them to perform the work. Due to the fact that it was late and they were tired and he really didn't want to be a bother, he was going to take it up with the office the next day. And it was my position to explain to him that that was absolutely inappropriate. By signing that paperwork and allowing them to proceed without getting somebody on the phone to help someone reduce the cost or provide options to him, which would have been don't load that much space if you don't want to pay for it in all honesty. We would have been able to approach that in that respect. He wasn't comfortable with that, and was refusing to make the payment, which my company required in order to facilitate the delivery.
There was discussion of where we had room to offer adjustments for him, and credits were applied. I came back and reduced his bill by $500, and that was not satisfactory to him. So again, I was left in the position to describe that he should have never have allowed the work to be performed if he had no intention of paying for it.
Now in the interim, sir, I end up with all sorts of egg on my face because the young man who was out there, he may have been a fine mover, but he was terrible with the paperwork. And he made an error in his paperwork that I'm not 100 percent clear on, forgive me on that, but it put our company where we had to cut our billing back down to the original estimate amount due to a human error on our contracted paperwork on my company's part. And my owner took those dollars off and left this man with the original billing amount. Provided, in that timeframe, he was required to pay 70 percent of the balance before we would even schedule the delivery. Once he did that, he was given to the dispatch, to the operations team for dispatch to take into consideration for scheduling, and they have done that. Since that time, I have not been able to find out specifically when the load is going to leave. They did tell me that I expected his delivery to happen this week, but until it's loaded and the truck is ready to leave that facility, I never can properly dictate what the estimated arrival is because he shares a ride with other items. About 4500 cubic feet in total can be on the trailer. And he has a certain amount of that that that doesn't complete.
I shared that information with him last week and he's demanding particular arrival. He's completely not embracing at all that I can't guess on an item like that, that in fact the truck needs to be in process. Further in our agreement, it states we don't afford any promise or guaranteed arrival date. The company has 30 business days to complete this delivery. And every time I try to assist him in one way or another, I end up speaking to another newscaster and getting further away from the results that I would hope to have between the client and myself.
Reporter: You mention because of an error you didn't have specifics on, and I understand that, you had to go back to the original estimate. I show the original estimate as being $5061.73. Roughly 70 percent of that would have been 3400, 3600, which I believe is pretty close to what he paid the driver, the mover with Spartan when he had everything picked up that Friday.
Yes, but at that point you must understand that wasn't known to be our actual total. He had a much higher bill in place which unfortunately, I was hoping to be able to dictate that to you. But since they've corrected the billing quote-unquote in my system, it doesn't show me what the original amount was that they were asking for. He had not made 70 percent according to the actual total. Once we had gone from requesting 70 percent of the actual total to the fact that we had to adjust his billing due to this paperwork detail, it was at that point he was put into the realm of scheduling.
Reporter: I'm looking at some of the paperwork here. One of the things he had told us was that when that paperwork was revised that same day, that Friday, with the movers there, things were -- and then he got some of this paperwork from the Department of Transportation, he got a revised estimate with the same things counted more than once.
Susan: That's nothing that I was, was brought to my attention. I have no idea about that. Now I didn't go item by item, quite frankly. I looked at just a numeric count, so I can't really weigh in on that to be honest. But that could...like I said, this adjustment in the paperwork, I'm not really clear at all on the error that made them go back to the original estimate, but they did go back and put these changes in place.
Reporter: He made us aware of a document in particular, a revised written estimate here, I'm looking at from Spartan Van Lines. He was presented this by the Department of Transportation. He maintains that he never saw this, and he maintains the signature on that document is not his.
Susan: I don't know that they would have anything that was not presented by the shipper himself. Those items are signed off on at the time of pickup and provided to our office, which in turn, if anything was presented to the Department of Transportation, it's to reflect exactly as they were received from the pickup location.
Reporter: So you dispute the claim that these documents were forged.
Susan: I do not know them to be forged. That is correct, sir. Now, please keep in mind that I am unfortunately sitting here with limited detail by way of -- see, this is the first time I've heard of that. If there has been any further conversation, I have not been made aware of that. I'm not familiar.
Reporter: The error on the driver's part that basically reduced Mr. Taffer's cost to what his original estimate was is unexpected and, to be honest with you, seems a little convenient for the company given that there was such a fuss made over the $15,000 bill that ended up being what Mr. Taffer was facing. Now that he's sent complaints to the FMCSA, DOT, now suddenly an error is reducing that to the same price that he was originally quoted, it seems a little convenient.
Susan: Perhaps it seems convenient, but I can assure you that if anybody has the ability to bring an item under the appropriate light for dissecting, it would be an organization such as those, because typically like I said, quite frankly, when I looked at the paperwork, I looked at an item count. I did not dissect the inventory. I truly admit that. But if DOT had called me and had me dissect it, I probably would have had a ruler out and gone in that respect just due to protocol. That is something that, I'm not going to say doesn't have room for improvement in respect of the matter, but certainly I would understand why they would take it under more direct scrutiny rather than Mr. Taffer, as he described it to me, 'Well, it was late and I didn't really want to bother anybody.' Since a Department of Transportation official is reaching out, it's definitely going to be addressed in a more formal level, I would imagine for lack of better words.
Reporter: He said he called that night, he said he called Scott, Scott's boss, Josh, and the general customer service line. He also emailed Scott that night.
Susan: He told me he didn't really want to bother anybody. He was gonna take it up, it was late, and he wasn't going to have the guys go through the trouble because of the hour and how much time, everybody was so tired. I don't know at what hour he was, he didn't even tell me he had made those calls. That's a little conflicting from the detail I had in the conversation.
Reporter: He drove to the Flowood location and, of course, there's nothing there.
Susan: I'm sorry, no, pertaining to what, a business location?
Reporter: Yeah, it's listed on the paperwork. It's still listed on the website as 232 Market Street, Flowood.
Susan: Okay, that's really regarding what? That's not a location that's open to the public. So, it's...I don't even know that it's something that's utilized. We have numerous different locations. I'm personally in South Florida.
Reporter: It's a location that apparently doesn't even exist, because we've researched it.
Susan: I don't know anything about that.
Reporter: Okay. Well, the reason I ask that is because --
Susan: Is that like a satellite for trucks, perhaps?
Reporter: No, ma'am. That particular address, there is nothing regarding Spartan Van Lines.
Susan: That's why I wonder if it's a satellite for trucks to be housed. Typically those are just fenced locations. Perhaps maybe that's the circumstance for that address. I don't know.
Reporter: It's an office park. An office park. A Regus office park.
Susan: I see. I see. Okay, got it. All right.
Reporter: So you can see why I'm a little confused with that. Are you based out of Miami?
Susan: No, sir. We have a location in Miami where I'm actually housed, but they're licensed out of Doylestown.
Reporter: That location in Miami, Northwest Second Avenue, Suite 318?
Susan: What about it?
Reporter: Is that the location that you currently are based out of?
Susan: Oh, I won't disclose my location personally. I'll tell you also that I am also in South Florida, but due to the nature of the business, there's -- yeah, I don't do that. I don't use my last name. It's not something that I'm willing to share.
Reporter: I'm not asking for your last name. I'm asking if this business that shows at 18350 NW Second Avenue Suite 318 is one of those locations.
Susan: In fact, yes.
Reporter: It says it's been in business for a year, according to public records?
Susan: I would not know that. I'm the customer service manager. That's something that's not really privy or relevant to what I do, so I'm not privy to it.
Reporter: We've been trying to look into this. It's been really kind of confusing to be quite honest with you, to find out where the company is based, why the company is showing locations that don't exist in some instances…
Susan: That I don't know anything about and I'm definitely going to look in and see if I can provide further information in respect to that, because it's my understanding that though we do not have any locations open to the public, some are warehouses, some are not buildings at all, like a satellite location, quote unquote a yard.
Reporter: So you don't have any idea why paperwork still lists a location of Flowood.
Susan: No, sir. No idea.
Reporter: I'm still trying to figure out. He feels like the prices were intentionally low in order to lowball him, so when someone showed up to move him out of his house, they could then underestimate the cubic feet, suddenly have to go over because it's going to require more space, and then charge a premium as you said, the $6 per cubic foot. Really, that lower cost is really a misnomer and gets your foot in the door with people looking for a good deal.
Susan: It is in fact an intentionally low number because of the competition that's out there. We provide that low number because we want to be the one who moves you. The whole estimate idea, though, is dictated by Mr. Taffer. He's given, with our estimate, a list of items that he has supplied to us. He's to look these items over, add or omit items as necessary, so we're able to determine the space that we need. I'm not clear on the double items, where the total volume worked out in that matter, but it was my understanding that he had an excessive amount more than what we estimated him, and that's what led to the increase in cost. If you tell us you have ten boxes, and then we get out there and you have 50 boxes, it's going to increase your cost, and it's not going to be at that ideal, discounted rate that we needed to entice you to book with us to begin with, because we're there. You have the right to only ship those ten boxes as we discussed, but there won't be any additional cost.
Reporter: You say that he didn't call and he should have called with someone from Spartan before he signed. He basically brought it upon himself, I guess. What about all the other customers who left complaints specifically on the Better Business Bureau website, in Pennsylvania. But these are complaints from all over the country, talking about some of the same issues. It seems like this is not an isolated incident.
Susan: It's not, and it's the nature of the business. It'd be better if we could go case by case, but in a general overall understanding of it, it has to do with the fact that, if it has to do with the overage. The client thinks that 10 percent buffer will cover anything extra they have. They're not realizing the importance of listing the items. Or I've often found that we've had sales issues where we've had a revolving door of people misdescribing circumstances not necessarily intentionally, but for instance, say, if someone has a binding estimate for 1,000 cubic feet and they only ship 800 cubic feet, they're bound to the 1,000 cubic feet. That's a frustration. There are so many different elements that makes this almost an impossible please due to the fact that we can't provide an on-site estimate to be awarded the business. In local moving, it's an easy task, but often in long-distance moving, you can't, because you don't have field representatives in those areas. And when you describe a circumstance over the phone and you show up there and it's an entirely different circumstance, it changes the billing and it changes -- nobody wants to leave anything behind.
The business, the industry, it's vicious. And if anything comes out of this at all, I would like to make sure that future movers, they're diligent and they're aware of the things they can and can't do to stop circumstances like these. It's not a matter of a good review or a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. It has to do with the lack of understanding that's out there that concerns me the most. When someone tells you that they're going to do something for you, it needs to be within the agreement written that they're going to do that for you. The salesperson's never gonna be the person driving your delivery to you, and people don't really take that truly into consideration. So if anything at all, sir, please help this be a buyer beware matter. My mom, my cousin, everybody I love moves at one point or another. I'd like to know that people are out there like you trying to help them know the tips of how to avoid bad situations.
Reporter: Some people have associated Spartan with the word "scam."
Susan: Always 'hostage.' Always 'bait and switch.' Every time. And it's...I can't defend the company enough to say that it is a bad business. It's not a bad company. And when people think that you can get from Key West to Albuquerque in three days because some salesperson told them they could, it doesn't make the company bad. It really doesn't.
Reporter: You take offense to that, I guess? It's sort of maligning the company?
Susan: I do! I really do, because I mean, honestly, if you take into consideration -- and I'm not saying everybody should have the common sense to do that. I don't mean to imply that. I do take offense to someone thinking I work within a scam. I have integrity. And the fact that I'm very seldom able to provide what would be known to the public as good customer service. It is disheartening because I try very hard to attempt to help people as best I can.
Unfortunately on the back end here, I'm the one who gets to describe the circumstances as it's written in the contract, not as a sales rep has presented it to them, or how they, something wasn't pointed out in the contract, something to that effect, on the back end, it's an unfortunate place to be, and I don't like to be the bad guy. You'll find the name "Susan" is probably out there quite a bit. And it's because they say I don't give answers, but what it often is, I don't give the answers that they want to hear. When I don't have an ETA, I can't share it. Or if we pick up more than what you originally estimated, I can't just credit it off because you're having trouble with the overage. It's a tough fence to walk.
Reporter: Was any of this made because of the fact that the FMCSA and DOT are investigating Spartan?
Susan: I would have to say that it was brought under the right light, thanks to them, more than likely. The way that it was handled, the fact that he signed his paperwork, I highly doubt that the company would have taken it as seriously without the agencies involved. As I said to you earlier, it made it far more official than a customer saying "yes" and then saying "no," if you know what I mean.
Three days after that initial phone interview, Susan called with answers to questions she had previously been unable to clarify.
What's the story behind the Flowood location listed on Spartan's emails?
"I have learned that the Flowood location that you inquired about was in fact an operations location for us that did close down sometime in the beginning of this year. I wasn't able to find out the specific date, but it's my understanding it was in the first quarter of the year that we closed down that location."
What was the "driver error" cited as the reason why the company went back to the original estimate?
"It's my understanding now that we did that because Mr. Taffer was a contracted client. His wife is the one that was available at the time of the delivery. She's the one who authorized the work. Now once Mr. Taffer started disputing that, the Department of Transportation standards, if it was not Mr. Taffer, had to accept her signature, she should have been on the contract as well. So there is really no disputing the Department of Transportation the way we would with the general public, certainly, so that is something that they did return back to that original estimate."
O'Hara offered a few tips to those who want to hire movers in the future.
- Don't fall for over-the-phone estimates. Make them come out in person.
- Make sure the business is accredited with the BBB or other state/local organizations first.
- If you see positive reviews of the company, check to make sure they're from real people, not Facebook accounts with only one photo.