Calls for government action to crack down on moving scams grow amid Toronto bust

After someone saw a December CityNews story about moving scams, they contacted Toronto police to report their belongings were stolen. A month-long investigation resulted in the possessions of 22 families being recovered. Nick Westoll reports.

As families continue to scramble to get reunited with belongings allegedly kept illegally for weeks in two east-end Toronto warehouses following a bust, calls are growing for action to be taken to crack down on moving scams.

Ontario resident Pat Cowell’s son was one of the 22 victims whose belongings were recovered on Friday, leading to the arrests of two men and the ongoing search for a woman.

The ordeal for the family began around mid-May when Cowell’s son found one of nine companies affiliated with the accused online. After paying a small deposit and receiving a quote, movers came and packed up his belongings. At around 7 p.m. on the night of the move, Cowell said he received a frantic call from his daughter as she was helping his son.

“’Dad, I don’t know what the hell is going on but [Cowell’s son] just got a really nasty phone call from the moving company saying they want $3,500 and it’s got to be e-transferred like right away’ and they are on the 401,” Cowell recalled in an interview with CityNews late Monday, estimating the additional amount of money was around three times more than the initial quote.

“He didn’t have access to data or anything to access his bank account, which is probably a good thing in hindsight.”

Cowell’s son was in his new home in London, Ont., and Cowell said he urged him to call a lawyer and the London Police Service to report the incident. He said his son was told that the matter was a civil one.

Meanwhile, Cowell said his wife began a frantic Google search on the company and moving scams, eventually coming across a CityNews article from December on scams in Toronto. CityNews spoke with 41 Division Const. Chris Long at the time as the service was seeing an uptick of a different type of moving scam. Since then, he’s been involved in investigations on different companies.

RELATED: Toronto police bust brazen moving scam, recover property belonging to 22 families

Cowell called Long and after some digging, Long said he was able to identify several other occurrences. After a month-long investigation, Long and officers executed the search warrants on two warehouses (with 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of space) near Bellamy Road North and Progress Avenue.

All of Cowell’s son’s items were recovered in the search, including the remains of his beloved 18-year-old cat that died at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The look of relief, happiness and I’m going to say he was borderline on tears that they were there, that stuff was there … Just the cat stuff alone was worth more to him was worth more to him than probably his entire apartment’s worth of stuff,” he said.

“All of those things can be replaced — it would take a while to get replaced — but you can’t replace ashes.”

The treasured belongings of 21 others were recovered and according to Long, those included the ashes of dead relatives and sentimental belongings that were once owned by deceased relatives.

“Because my wife had dug into what is going on and I had the presence of mind to call, this is the end result,” Cowell said.

“The sense of relief on my son was… he had a smile all the way home I mean that’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive so that’s a pretty long smile.”

‘Haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg’ on moving scams

Long said outside the warehouses on Monday that even though three people were alleged to have been involved with this moving scam investigation, these types of scams are prevalent across the region and in eastern Canada.

“Often victims are confused about who they should be reporting this to and in a lot of cases it’s just not going reported,” Long said, urging people to contact their local police service to help with broader ongoing investigations.

“I would assume I haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg of these kinds of things. We want to send a message to them too. If you do this sort of thing, you will be arrested. We will do everything we can to protect our victims.”

However, it appears there is a patchwork of responses to complaints about suspected moving scams.

Rocco Scocco, the principal lawyer with Scocco Law who focuses on consumer protection law as it relates to disputes with moving companies, said based on his experience with a growing list of clients, laws are “not being applied” by officers or Ontario government staff a majority of the time.

“The consistent feedback I’ve had is police see it as a civil matter. I don’t see it as a civil matter. I deal with it in a civil context, but I think this is more suitable for police or the ministry,” he told CityNews on Tuesday.

“I think the law on the books is not straightforward. It’s not obvious. This isn’t a moving scam law, that doesn’t exist, but the laws are there such that they could be used to deal with this issue.”

Under Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act, Scocco said there are three sections that stipulate people can’t hold goods or use the control of goods to pressure consumers to renegotiate.

Nancy Irvine, the president of the Canadian Association of Movers, echoed the concerns about disputes involving some movers being treated as civil matters.

“Current laws (both provincially and federally) need to be reviewed and strengthened,” she said.

CityNews viewers who contacted the newsroom have reported various experiences with some saying police officers in their local jurisdictions took reports while said they were told it’s a civil matter or referred to another entity.

Meanwhile, when it comes to experiences like the ones reported by Cowell’s son, CityNews asked the London Police Service about how investigators generally probe complaints on alleged moving scams when those are received.

“Every case is investigated independently and depending on the circumstances, it could be a criminal investigation or civil matter,” Const. Sandasha Bough told CityNews in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our financial crime investigators are aware of current trends in relation to these types of scams and we share the information via media releases and social media on a regular basis. Our investigators liaise with police services across the province when it comes to identifying possible suspects and/or trends.”

What’s being done to address moving scams?

With frustrations about moving scams mounting, there was a large consensus: More needs to be done and soon.

“Absolutely, absolutely, whatever regulating body is in charge either isn’t doing their job or they don’t have enough people doing the job,” Cowell said when asked about the need for action while also encouraging people to do plenty of research before retaining a mover.

As Scocco and his firm deals with a growing list of victims, he said the solutions need to come from provincial and federal governments. In Ontario, he said he’s an advocate for a “simple licensing program” from the industry and one that doesn’t burden many of the legitimate moving companies.

“There should be an easy way for an officer to tell if a company is licensed or not,” Scocco said, adding an adjudication process with quick turnarounds and the ability to pull licenses if need be would go a long way to help.

He also said Ontario Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery inspectors who have the authority to enforce the Consumer Protection Act to be more aggressive in carrying out their jobs and making sure they are “actually listening to complaints.”

However, Scocco said it’s not just an Ontario government issue alone. He said the Government of Canada needs to put in place cross-provincial “mechanisms” to crack down since many victims run into trouble moving between provinces.

RELATED: Toronto police issue warning amid rising scam reports about moving services advertised online

Lastly, Scocco said officers like Long need further resources to help address the surging number of complainants coming forward, noting so many victims have felt “completely disheartened” with various policing services.

CityNews contacted multiple provincial and federal ministers’ offices responsible for consumer protection and public safety to ask for reaction to Friday’s bust by Toronto police and what, if anything, is being contemplated to address the issue.

A spokesperson for Ontario’s minister of public and business service delivery, the cabinet official who oversees the ministry responsible for the Consumer Protection Act, said in a statement to CityNews government officials won’t “tolerate scams by unscrupulous bad actors who target vulnerable Ontarians.”

“We will work with our law enforcement partners to assist in their investigation and prosecution of these businesses and individuals,” the spokesperson wrote.

They went on to say the government was undertaking a “comprehensive review” of the Consumer Protect Act to see how it can be “updated to reflect changing technology, marketplace innovations, and evolving consumer purchasing habits, all with the goal of better protecting consumers.”

CityNews tried to clarify when the proposed changes might be coming forward, but a follow-up response wasn’t available by the time of publication. It also wasn’t clear if there would be new specific measures aimed at further cracking down on moving scams.

Meanwhile, CityNews didn’t receive responses from the federal Liberal government’s public safety or justice ministers’ offices by deadline.

Tips for picking a mover

Irvine and the Canadian Association of Movers released the following tips for selecting a mover:

  • Get at least three written quotes from different sources, closely scrutinize companies offering cheap moves
  • Check Ontario’s Consumer Beware List registry of companies with complaints or your local Better Business Bureau chapter
  • Consult customer reviews on websites not affiliated with the company, but remember good reviews can be bought in bulk or done by friends or family while bad reviews can be made by “disgruntled and often uninformed” customers or competitors
  • Push for all quotes and promises to be put in writing
  • Call police to report instances of robbery, extortion or threats
  • Contact government protection entities, the Canadian Association of Movers and/or your the relevant Better Business Bureau chapter

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today