When the company Rowan Phendler and his girlfriend hired for their move earlier this month failed to show up, they were desperate.

“Frantic to find another company, we went to Kijiji,” Phendler said.

Rowan Phendler

Rowan Phendler didn't know what he was getting into when he called up a moving company he found on Kijiji after his movers cancelled at the last minute. (CBC)

Over the phone, he was told the price of the move would be $200 plus tax, and that movers would arrive at his home shortly.

The company, listed as “TRUSTABLE MOVERS – ALWAYS ON TIME” on the online classifieds site, showed up more than two-and-a-half hours late.

For those looking for a cheap and efficient moving company, online ads like the one Phendler found seem to offer all the right things: promises of punctual and experienced movers, no hidden fees and guaranteed customer satisfaction.

But a CBC Montreal investigation in June uncovered that behind many of these Kijiji ads is a ring of unregistered companies that use questionable practices to force customers to hand over their money.

Disappointed customers now tell CBC similar schemes are still being used, and that the services of these shady movers extend all the way to Toronto.

Taking advantage of stressful situation

When the movers finally did show up at Phendler's Westmount, Que., apartment, they loaded a few of his belongings onto the truck before stopping to ask for a deposit.

'No one wants to get involved… That's why these so-called movers, in effect rogue movers, are having their way right now.' - Jim Carney, Canadian Association of Movers

“Being naive at the time and just wanting to get the move over with, I pulled out the money,” Phendler said.

Along with the payment, he was handed a one-page document — a contract he signed in a hurry.

“I think they do this on purpose to put the person in a sense of urgency to leave and to oversee the contract, he said.

“I think that’s part of their tactic.”  

What he hadn’t noticed was the document locked him in to a variety of extra fees for things like stairs, heavy items and appliances.

After leaving his residence with his belongings, the movers stopped at a gas station and told Phendler they would not finish the job until he paid the new amount in full.  

“I was billed $793,” Phendler said.

Other victims report similar schemes

In June, two other victims contacted the CBC reporting they had been tricked into paying their movers hundreds of dollars more than they initially agreed to.

Ferhan Patel

Ferhan Patel in June told CBC News that he was given one price for a short-distance move, and on the day of the move he was told he'd owe much more. (Jay Turnbull/CBC)

The contract they signed was nearly identical to the document Phendler was handed.

At the time, CBC contacted Kijiji, who said they were investigating the misleading ads.

Nearly two months later, CBC found nearly a dozen similar postings still on the site, all of them sharing the same handful of phone numbers. None of the company names mentioned in those postings is registered in Ontario or Quebec.

The CBC found near-identical ads on Kijiji’s Toronto listings.

A CBC reporter called the Toronto number to get a quote on moving services, then asked if they also operated in Montreal.

An employee confirmed they were the same company.

In a subsequent call to the same number, an employee said they were based in Toronto but only did business in Montreal.

He denied doing anything illegal, saying the customers all signed contracts. He hung up when questioned about multiple company names listed at the same phone numbers.

Lax oversight

The director of the Canadian Association of Movers says he’s not surprised by Phendler’s experience.

'Being naive at the time and just wanting to get the move over with, I pulled out the money.' - Rowan Phendler

Jim Carney said consumers should be vigilant when hiring movers, but more needs to be done to ensure their protection. His organization has been lobbying various levels of government to no avail.

"No one wants to get involved… That's why these so-called movers, in effect rogue movers, are having their way right now," he said. 

“They know that they're pretty much running lawlessly until some level of government decides to interject.”

Toronto moving scam ring busted in 2010

Police in Toronto said Phendler's experience isn't unique to Quebec.

Sgt. Patrick Yeung said his team busted a ring of shady moving companies operating in the Toronto area in 2010.

The ads posted and tactics used back then are almost identical to those described in recent reports. 

“If we can prove there is a pattern and an intent to defraud the public, it’s easier for us to proceed with the investigation,” he said, adding that his team spent months interviewing people. Their investigation led to seven arrests and they managed to get $30,000 back to the victims.

No help from consumer watchdog

Phendler says he has been calling the Office de protection du consommateur (OPC), Quebec's consumer watchdog, for days, but his request has not yet been processed.

OPC spokesman Jean Jacques Préaux said these situations become complicated because the contracts signed protect the movers. He says unless there is written confirmation of the lower price initially quoted, the only option is to take the movers to small claims court.

Phendler says that when he started calling the company back to file a complaint, they hung up on him and stopped taking his calls.

He said he hasn't yet reported the incident to police, but plans to in the hopes that it will help protect others from falling victim to the same tactics.