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It's hard to muster much enthusiasm for seeing a 93-year-old get behind the wheel of a car. But if you had spent some time with Queens widow Florence Katz during the six weeks her 2000 Honda Civic was held hostage, you would have rooted for her to get back in the driver's seat as quickly as possible.
As soon as she could steal her car back from the clutches of a corrupt auto transporter, that is. And somehow try to rescue it from a New Jersey auto lot, where it was being kept.
Before her car was swindled from her in March, she drove herself to the gym daily and to the grocery weekly. Not that she's stubborn. On trips to the city to see shows, she says, "one of the other girls" in her posse does the driving. "I know my limits," says Katz. "My reflexes aren't what they used to be, and it's hard driving in Manhattan."
Her car—along with her laptop, her medications, and her walker—is integral to maintaining her independent life in the same Flushing apartment she first shared with her husband after he came home from World War II—long before her neighborhood was a thriving Chinatown. (She is now the only non-Asian resident in her building.)
Although the winters push her to Florida a few months each year, she has no intention of ever leaving her home in Queens. Apart from nightly check-ins from her daughter in Minneapolis, who "calls every evening to make sure I'm still alive," Katz says, she has lived quite autonomously since her husband died in 1976. "I never expected to live this long," she says, but the retired nurse doesn't look or act her age, and she likes her life.
But being separated from her car in March halted her independence. Her troubles began when she got involved with a Long Island company called A Blue Knight Auto Carrier (or "A Eastern Connection." Or "Autotrail Transporters." It depends on who's asking).
Whatever its name, it's run by Greg Sclafani (or "John," depending on when you call) and his wife, Marguerite Cermola Sclafani (who also goes by "Kathy").
Operating under multiple names has allowed the couple to do business for years, all the while defrauding at least 400 customers, according to a consent order and judgment obtained last November by the State Attorney General's Office. Under the court order, Sclafani was told to stop ripping off customers and reimburse those whom he had already defrauded.
It didn't work. Florence Katz and others were swindled after the consent order and judgment, according to new papers filed by Andrew Cuomo. The AG's Office is now trying to put Sclafani out of business; the next hearing on new complaints against him is scheduled for next month.
You're thinking that this doesn't rise to the level of, say, Wall Street rip-offs, but if it's your 93-year-old grandmother getting screwed over, maybe it really does.
Greg Sclafani's scam is simple enough, as laid out in the numerous court documents and records compiled by the AG's Office. His company claims to move people's vehicles long distances. But though he runs an ad claiming that ABK has "terminals in 48 states" in the Yellow Pages with an 800 number, he neither owns nor operates a depot or trucks.
He is just a broker, which the AG's Office says is misleading to customers. Key to the scam is that Sclafani persuades customers to pay up-front, usually telling them that his credit-card machine is on the blink and then convincing them to allow direct deposit from their checking accounts. Once he has their bank numbers, he often helps himself to additional payments, according to court documents. He then subcontracts the hauling to independent truckers and tow companies. Some of the vehicles do get delivered, but Sclafani regularly stiffs the haulers as well, according to court documents, and they often refuse to release the vehicles to Sclafani's customers until they get paid.
That's where it gets sticky for the customers. According to court documents, Sclafani threatens them with lawsuits, refuses to issue refunds, and passes the responsibility off to the haulers.
They're the ones who wind up fighting to the death with customers, while Sclafani, who has already gotten his money, just stands on the sidelines.
It is practically a fight to the death, since most of the frustrated customers trying to catch up with him are elderly. The majority of complaints against him are from snowbirds who want their cars transported from New York to Florida. In affidavit after affidavit attached to Cuomo's new move to shut down Sclafani for good, customers talk about their high blood pressure and heart conditions—and the grief caused by Sclafani that's just making those problems worse.
Many truckers suffer similar agita: "Greg has a lot of jobs, and he passes them on to people like me who have a license" to haul vehicles, a trucking dispatcher tells the Voice. He recently moved a dozen cars for Sclafani in April, he says, but has been paid for only eight of them. He won't do it again, says the trucker, and he won't be identified by name because he still hopes that Sclafani will pay him. In the meantime, the dispatcher has paid his drivers out of his own pocket—he could lose his license if he didn't pay them.