The mastermind of one of South Florida’s notorious moving company networks must pay a heavy price for his deceptions.
Ohad Guzi has been ordered to pay $13 million after a federal judge found that he controlled a company that misled customers by using the name and trademark of a reputable international competitor on a website set up to generate sales leads.
King David Van Lines, which the judge determined was controlled
by Guzi, conducted business under the name Northstar Movers and the Internet domain name northstarmovers.com.
According to the Dec. 22 ruling by U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas, it did so in order to convince customers that it was actually NorthStar Moving Company, a California-based company that was founded in 1996 and has since expanded internationally.
In a separate case in Broward County Circuit Court, the Florida Attorney General’s Office has asked a circuit judge to rule that Guzi controlled a network of separately named companies that lured in customers with deceptively worded websites and lowball estimates, then raised prices on job sites and mishandled or stole their goods.
In the trademark case, NorthStar accused the company of unauthorized use of its trademarks in its website domains, within websites themselves, and in online reviews.
“Defendants’ use is intentional and willful,” the original complaint states, adding that it’s part of a “pattern and practice of capitalizing on the goodwill and reputation of others in the moving industry for their own commercial gain.”
NorthStar learned about the infringement when Guzi’s customers contacted them with complaints. Often, the victims were elderly or from vulnerable populations, a NorthStar attorney said in an interview.
Guzi could not be reached for comment through an attorney representing him in the state Attorney General’s case. In the NorthStar case, court records show that Guzi represented himself in the December trial after five different attorneys withdrew or were terminated.
Masquerading as a legitimate moving company with a solid reputation is a tactic used by some moving companies that advertise end-to-end services, take deposits based on lowball estimates, and in many cases fail to disclose that they’ll be subcontracting jobs to third-party companies.
The results have generated thousands of victim complaints on consumer review websites, law enforcement agencies, and the Better Business Bureau.
After customers hand over deposits totaling hundreds of dollars or more, moving day arrives and the company that shows up bears no resemblance to the ones pictured on the websites.
After loading the customers’ belongings into their truck, a foreman typically announces that the customer — on a tight schedule to begin a new job in a new city — underestimated the volume of their belongings and demands more money to complete the move.
When their belongings fail to arrive when expected, customers often become frantic and start searching for information online. That’s when they find out many other consumers who dealt with the companies have leveled similar complaints.
Eventually, after spending hours on the phone begging to know what happened to their belongings, another truck arrives with the final insult — crushed boxes, broken heirlooms and missing valuables — evidence that the belongings had been tossed into a storage unit and delivered only after the company found enough other jobs to make the cross-country trip worthwhile.
Only a few companies whose names have been targets of infringement decide to spend the time and resources to hold the infringers responsible, said one of NorthStar Moving Company’s attorneys, Deborah Gubernick, of Costa Mesa-based Snell & Wilmer, L.L.P.
“Our client was so committed because they were fed up with consumers being ripped off,” she said. “Now a message has been sent: You can’t hide behind a corporate entity or a shell company to engage in this practice. At some point, you have to answer for your wrongs.”
During the trial, Guzi argued that he was merely helping a friend, Itzhak Bokobza, who is listed as president of King David Van Lines. But NorthStar’s attorneys convinced the judge that Guzi was actually the “moving, conscious force” behind the infringement, said another of NorthStar’s attorneys, Joseph Bain of West Palm Beach-based Shutts & Bowen LLP.
Bokobza, the attorneys discovered during the case, was a truck driver and operations manager for the moving side of Guzi’s business and didn’t have the expertise to set up the company’s websites and lead-generation software.
Guzi registered the domain name northstarmovers.com
in 2008 and did not cancel it until February 2020, despite receiving cease and desist letters from NorthStar Moving Company in July 2018 and June 2019, the order states.
Changing company names is another common tactic used by moving brokers to minimize damage to their reputations as complaints mount on consumer-oriented sites such as Google, Yelp and Better Business Bureau.
The 2018 lawsuit by then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi alleged that Guzi controlled an elaborate network of businesses using a long list of names, including All USA Van Lines Inc., Moving Group Inc, Moving Group System, United Moving & Relocation, Top Movers, Transworld Movers, Emoving Company, Affordable Movers, Cross Country Movers, 24/7 Moving, Long Distance Movers, Household Van Lines, Dispatch My Move, USA Movers-Interstate Movers and Nationwide Movers.
In an affidavit filed in the case, Shawn Lux, senior financial investigator for the Attorney General’s Office, said the Attorney General received complaints from customers and their families “alleging the Defendants, under various names, held themselves out as being professional movers staffed by well-trained employees who use the utmost care with shippers’ belongings and are scrupulous in preparing and following estimates.”
In reality, Lux said, Guzi and his companies “regularly used unskilled, untrained laborers who often damage or steal property, and routinely provide deceptive, deliberately low estimates before extorting higher fees by holding shippers’ property hostage.”
That suit, filed in circuit court in Broward County, is ongoing, with a trial currently scheduled to begin on Jan. 13. The Attorney General’s Office is seeking repayment of ill-gotten gains and a permanent injunction barring Guzi and other officers of his companies from making false and/or misleading statements about moving services being offered or provided.
On Dec. 21, the office asked the court to issue a ruling establishing that Guzi controlled all of the companies that lists him as a corporate officer. During the litigation, Guzi argued that some of the companies listed as co-defendants were not his.
In an Oct. 4 deposition for the Attorney General’s suit, Guzi said he did not broker moving services to third parties but was merely providing customer services between customers, brokers and moving companies.
According to the attorneys in the NorthStar suit, Guzi did own several trucks and King David Van Lines employed its own movers. The company generated $4.3 million in profit over 18 months, providing moving services to customers lured by its infringing name and website, the attorneys said.
By Ron Hurtibise South Florida Sun Sentinel. Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.