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The owners of an unlicensed Richmond Hill moving company that operated under five different names pleaded guilty last week to giving customers lowball estimates and then holding their furniture hostage when they refused to pay jacked-up prices on moving day, authorities said.
As part of the plea, the three owners agreed to reimburse 120 of the victims they defrauded and return their property, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said. They also face jail time, he said.
Ronit Mantoza, 35, of 148-47 67th Rd. in Flushing, pleaded guilty July 31 to attempted enterprise corruption, a felony, and will be sentenced to three months in jail and five years probation; her husband, Daniel Mantoza, 37, and Morad Alfar, 32, of 196-36 50th Ave. in Fresh Meadows both pleaded guilty to scheme to defraud, a misdemeanor, and will be sentenced to two and three months in jail, respectively, and three years probation, the DA said.
The guilty plea by Ronit Mantoza represented the first time in state history a moving company or owner was charged with a felony, authorities said.
The three moving company owners admitted they baited customers with unrealistically low estimates and then on moving day demanded cash payments three to seven times higher than the quotes.
I was originally given an estimate of $2,400 to move from New York to Florida, said former Richmond Hill resident Lakram Arjun. They ended up giving me a bill of $8,800.
When customers refused to pay the higher prices, their possessions were carted away and held captive in locked storage until a ransom ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 was paid, the DA said.
We are continuing our efforts to ensure that property wrongfully taken and held hostage by the defendants is returned to its rightful owners, he said.
The victims include more than 90 people who were given low estimates and later forced to pay a higher amount to get their property back and 30 people whose property had been carted to warehouses as far as Nevada and Texas, authorities said.
Brown said the moving companies, which mailed out fliers in Value-Paks and also advertised through the Yellow Pages and on the Internet, operated as a single entity out of the warehouse at 131-11 Atlantic Ave. in Richmond Hill. The group of companies had taken in $500,000 to $1 million a year since opening in 1994, prosecutors said.
The multiple corporate identities of the five companies Allstate Moving and Storage, On Budget Van Lines, Eilid Moving and Storage, Online Moving and Storage, and In & Out Moving and Storage enabled the defendants to mislead clients about service complaints and prevented customers from filing damage claims, Brown said.
On Feb. 12 investigators executing a search warrant seized trucks, computers and more than $500,000 worth of furniture at the Atlantic Avenue warehouse, the DA said. The three defendants agreed to forfeit all of that property, which will be sold at an auction. The proceeds will go to victims of the moving scheme, Brown said.
The owners also agreed to submit all damage and loss claims to their insurance company prior to sentencing; release all property in their possession without charging storage fees; dissolve all of their moving businesses within 30 days of sentencing; and not work in, own or have any interest in the moving industry, the DA said.
The plea bargain does not preclude victims from filing civil suits against the movers, Brown said.
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2002 Community Newspaper Group
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