BERNADSVILLE, New Jersey (WABC) -- How do you know if the people you've hired to help move your personal belongings are real or phonies? Sometimes it's hard to tell, and using an unlicensed mover could put you at risk in more ways than one.
A covert operation that had investigators pose as customers to catch moving companies operating without a license netted nearly two dozen movers who were fined and seven who were arrested. It's a wake-up call for being extremely careful with who you hire to move your prized possessions.
One mover was taken into custody by undercover agents with U.S. Homeland Security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said he had an open arrest warrant.
Another was hauled off in handcuffs after the sheriff's office and state troopers said they found illegal drugs on him.
"We've been doing this year after year and its surprises me that people don't learn their lesson, unlicensed mover after unlicensed mover that comes," said Steve Lee, director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.
The sting, dubbed Operation Mother's attic, nabbed 21 unlicensed movers, with each receiving a $2,500 fine. All answered ads, showing up expecting to do a move but greeted by a swarm of law enforcement.
Investigators warn unlicensed movers aren't accountable to anyone. They can take your stuff and hold it hostage, demanding higher fees.
"You're pretty much taking your chances with all your personal possessions," Lee said. "They essentially can pick up your stuff one day and disappear the next day."
Inspections have revealed dangerous trucks and even more questionable individuals.
Before hiring movers, always check first to see if they're registered with the state and if there's been any complaints against them. Also, never pack jewelry, important documents or other expensive items for a move. Another big red flag is movers who show up in rental trucks.
The big takeaway is before you move, get a binding estimate done in your home, not over the phone.
Also, look into buying insurance. Without it, movers are only required to pay up to 60 cents per pound per damaged article.
Inspect your goods during delivery, and document damage in writing and with pictures. You have 90 days after the move to make a claim.
Where to complain or check on licenses:
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
From NJ Consumer Affairs, the following companies were issued an Notice Of Violation and a $2,500 civil penalty:
QMS PLUS PRO MOVERS, Paramus, NJ
HOUSE MOVERS, Secaucus, NJ
ARON DAY MOV. & DELIVERY, Nyack, NY
M&M MOVING & STORAGE, Woodland Park, NJ
ABC MOVING SERVICES, Phillipsburg, NJ
MOBILE MOVERS, Helmetta, NJ
RELOCATION SOLUTION MOVING, Old Bridge, NJ
SJS MOVING & TRANSPORTATION, Rahway, NJ
RUSH HOUR MOVING, Marlton, NJ
ROUND ONE MOVING, Trenton, NJ
SMART MOVE INDUSTRIES, Clifton, NJ
TOP MOVERS, Linden, NJ
R&B MOVERS, Runnemede, NJ
ACTION PIANO MOVING, New City, NY
KEYBOARD EXPRESS, Toms River, NJ
GO TO M&S, Staten Island, NY
DELTA RELOCATION, Union City, NJ
ELVIS DIRT CHEAP MOVING, Philadelphia, PA
TOP SHELF MOVERS, Raritan, NJ
MORRISTOWN MOVING SERVICES, Waldwick, NJ
MOVING SOLUTIONS, Bayonne, NJ
7 On Your Side: Nearly 2 dozen movers busted in sting
7 ON YOUR SIDE