BILLINGS - A Montana family is caught in the middle of a complicated moving scam and their belongings are being held for ransom.
All of it happened when they picked up their entire family to move to Tennessee.
“July 27th, we left,” said Jimmy Bell. “And my wife and kids they wanted a new kind of fresh start.”
Months back, in the summer, the family packed up the belongings in their five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot home in Billings and headed out.
Bell reached out to a moving company called Southern Guarantee which he had used before in their move to Montana years ago.
Bell ordered up a 53-foot moving truck to accommodate the family’s belongings.
But when moving day came, that’s when Bell says the scam started to unravel.
“He showed up in a 23-foot box truck Enterprise,” he said.
At that point, the Bell family was already on the road heading to their new home.
But the Bells got a call from their driver, asking for thousands of dollars more to move all the items.
They refused after paying some $17,000 already in upfront moving costs.
“I said, 'I already paid you in full,' but (the driver said) 'Nope, that’s what it’s going to cost you,'” said Bell.
Bell responded saying the driver didn’t show up with the right trailer in the first place.
For more than 40 days, the Bell family’s household items, complete with brand new appliances, TVs, jewelry, and even Jimmy’s spare wheelchair sat somewhere in Billings.
The Bells knew for sure because they put a tracker in the truck.
But the items were being held hostage, according to Bell, for more money.
“And at that point…. I just told them where to go,” said Bell.
Turns out the truck was taken to a storage unit facility called Big Sky Storage on Underpass Avenue in Billings.
But every time Bell tried to call and get information about his things he was met with resistance.
MTN News headed down to Big Sky Storage to get some answers and met Paula who identified herself as the manager. She didn’t provide a last name.
She said Bell couldn’t verify who moved the units in.
“So we couldn’t give him any information and then two days later the people who had the unit moved one of them out and the other one is partially still here,” Paula said.
And that wasn’t the only dead end that Bell encountered.
When he reached out to Billings police they told him the case was civil, meaning criminal charges wouldn’t be filed.
Lt. Matt Lennick told MTN News that the company has cooperated with officers and provided the contract and claims they are waiting to be paid before they release the property.
“At this time, nothing Jimmy has reported or that they have uncovered in their investigations allows for criminal charges to be filed,” said Lennick in a statement.
Southern Guarantee is a moving brokerage company out of Florida.
Bethany Cook identified herself as the principal of the company and was reached by phone for comment.
“We cannot predict what a carrier or even a customer might do,” said Cook.
She says the company does a thorough job of vetting any working partner but got caught up with bad players in the industry.
She’s vowing to make things right with the Bell family.
“So we do really feel as though we do our best and then some and beyond for any consumer,” said Cook.
But a simple search of Southern Guarantee with the Better Business Bureau shows a plethora of bad complaints with the company getting an F rating due to 79 complaints filed in the last year.
Dale Dixon with the Better Business Bureau that overseas Montana and the Northwest, says the moving scam is real with as many as 15,000 complaints filed to the BBB regarding moving scams every single year.
“I hesitate even calling it a scam,” he said. “It is bad businesses doing bad things to people. So they’re setting up as moving companies, they’ll come with a truck and take your stuff and disappear,” said Dixon.
Cook says they have a great track record of making things right with their customers, but it took MTN News calling the company to get things moving on the whereabouts of the Bell’s items.
Bell says he never even heard of such a scam until recently. But as of now, the family is living without 99 percent of their possessions and trying to get anyone to help and listen.
“It's about a hundred thousand dollars worth of property,” said Bell. “I mean all new TVs, computers, laptops, a brand-new fridge and washer, and dryer.”
As of Friday, Bell was told that the truck is now on its way and would arrive by that evening. Still, there’s no word on the condition of the contents or if all of the items are going to be there when it arrives.
“I mean it's not just my stuff, it’s my kids’ stuff, it’s my wife’s stuff,” said Bell. “It's 40 years.”
Bell wants others to know the moving scam is real and it can impact anyone making in the midst of a move.