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Want Your Couch Back? Pay Up, Said Movers Who Ran Ransom Scheme

Any New Yorker who has ever moved has experienced the transient terror of putting all one’s belongings into a moving truck, sweating out the precarious hours poised between one apartment and another, calling neither home.

Federal prosecutors say a group of scammers made money off that nervous moment, bilking hundreds of trusting customers by offering cheap moving estimates and then demanding exorbitant fees in exchange for returning their worldly possessions.

The scheme, orchestrated by the now-fugitive owner of several Brooklyn moving companies, resulted in guilty verdicts on Monday for two midlevel employees, Kristy Mak and Andre Prince, each on a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The case was brought by Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Ms. Mak, 34, and Mr. Prince, 45, were both employed by the lead defendant, Yakov Moroz, who this year took his devotion to moving to extremes by absconding while free on bond.

Mr. Moroz’s companies swindled more than 800 victims between 2017 and 2020, taking in more than $3 million, prosecutors said.

Mr. Moroz used aliases and repeatedly rebooted his businesses, confusing customers — not to mention employees, who sometimes answered the phones using the wrong company name, according to testimony. That reinvention, officials said, helped as word of the disreputable practices spread.

“Once the reviews became too hard to handle, they’d simply change their name,” Arun Bodapati, a prosecutor, said in his closing argument on Monday.

Ms. Mak was the Florida-based sales manager for several of Mr. Moroz’s ventures, including the aspirationally named Great Moving USA, while Mr. Prince — who also used aliases — was a sales representative. Two other defendants pleaded guilty in November.

The scheme was simple and sinister: The companies would advertise cheap services, often buoyed by fake websites referring to them as “trusted interstate movers.”

Then, after the contract was signed — and sometimes after the couches, china and tchotchkes were on trucks — prosecutors said Mr. Moroz’s companies would spring the surprise fees, with drivers threatening to hold the items hostage until customers paid up, sometimes double or even triple the estimate.

Some customers were also met with threats that their belongings would be auctioned if the furniture ransom weren’t paid. Even after that, prosecutors said, the return of the goods was often delayed by weeks or months, and sometimes items showed up damaged.

Ms. Mak assisted with day-to-day operations and did customer service, while Mr. Prince was in charge of pitching potential customers, often charming them, according to testimony from several of those now-less-charmed customers during the weeklong trial.

Rogue movers aren’t uncommon: The federal Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General has a most-wanted site, which includes some fugitives considered “armed and dangerous.” In February, a defendant convicted in a similar scheme was given a 18-month prison sentence in the Eastern District.

Federal authorities say they have been cracking down, sending dozens of investigators out earlier this year “to address the significant uptick in complaints of movers holding household possessions hostage to extort exorbitant additional charges from consumers.”

Mr. Moroz, who had been under investigation for shady moving businesses before, is reported to have fled to Israel, according to the Daily News.

In the trial, defense attorneys had tried to suggest that Mr. Prince and Ms. Mak were just doing their jobs, including reading scripts to customers and passing along preset prices.

“Andre was a cog,” Carlos M. Santiago, Mr. Prince’s lawyer, said during his summation on Monday. “Nothing more, and nothing less.”

But the idea that Mr. Prince and Ms. Mak were oblivious to the scam was seemingly undercut by electronic messages that showed Ms. Mak laughing — “lol,” she wrote — at the idea of extorting more money from customers at their destinations. Prosecutors also introduced a meme sent to Mr. Prince by another salesperson showing a dog hiding behind curtain drapes, with the caption “me hiding from the customer on move day.”

“That is so accurate,” Mr. Prince responded, with a laughing emoji.

Jeffrey Pittell, Ms. Mak’s lawyer, also suggested Monday that surprising fees were simply part of modern existence, noting his own recent displeasure at a hefty surcharge to buy tickets for a Rolling Stones show.

“It’s just part of life,” Mr. Pittell said.

In the end, however, the federal jury took less than three hours to return the verdicts.

The defendants are set to be sentenced in April, and each faces up to 20 years in prison. Both Mr. Pittell and Mr. Santiago declined to comment after the verdicts were announced.

In a statement, Mr. Peace called the moving scheme “despicable,” saying that it targeted victims “when they were most vulnerable and at the mercy of crooked movers holding their worldly possessions hostage.”

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