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Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - Page updated at 04:58 P.M.
Ex-workers detail tactics of movers
By Peter Lewis
"We were happy," recounted Michael Airgood, referring to how much extra money they brought in by cheating people.
Airgood testified as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. The potentially damaging testimony came at the start of week three in the government's case against now-defunct Nationwide Moving Systems of Woodinville and four people charged with extorting customers. They are accused of luring customers with low prices, then jacking up costs and holding their goods hostage until they paid.
Airgood, 24, of Lynnwood said his superiors taught him to get the customer's signature on certain forms as soon as the moving crew showed up and before the forms were fully filled out. He also would tell them the move could not start unless they signed.
Then, after their stuff was loaded and the truck was locked, he would present customers with a significantly higher price than the original estimate and point to the signed forms, which gave the movers permission to charge more than the original quote and to hold the goods until the price was paid, Airgood testified.
The government has identified more than 50 customers who were harmed between the time Nationwide was formed in May 2002 and was shut down in July 2003. Actual and intended losses including the amount the defendants tried to defraud customers out of exceeded $1 million, prosecutors contend.
In opening statements, defense attorneys denied that the business was trying to defraud customers.
They contended that moving-company customers themselves were to blame for the higher prices because they underestimated how much stuff they had.
"All businesses have unhappy customers," said defense attorney Bob Leen, who represents Erik Deri, who ran the company.
On trial along with Deri, 33, are Yosef Nahum, 55, and Yuval Derei, 30. All are Israeli nationals facing deportation if convicted. Yuval Derei is Erik Deri's brother but spells his name differently. The fourth defendant, American-born Tanya Deri, 29, is Deri's wife.
Yesterday, Airgood said Deri, Nahum and Derei taught him how to drive up prices. Those techniques included underpacking boxes, leaving gaps inside trucks when furniture and boxes were loaded and lying to customers about the size of the trucks into which their stuff was loaded, Airgood testified.
Airgood, who worked for Nationwide as a packer and later as a foreman, has pleaded guilty to six counts of extortion. His sentencing won't occur until the trial is over.
His common-law wife, Klein, also 24, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud. She testified that she worked as a secretary and that her superiors taught her how to lure customers with phony estimates.
For example, if a customer said they had a sofa, she would indicate they had a love seat when she entered an inventory of their items into a computer program. By indicating a smaller piece of furniture, the program would give a lower estimate.
Then when the movers showed up to load the goods, the belongings would take up more room. The point was to "reel in" customers by offering unbeatable prices, Klein testified.
Defense attorneys have dismissed the testimony from former employees as "bought and paid for" by the government. The cooperating defendants expect reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. The trial is expected to last another couple of weeks.
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or email@example.com
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