By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
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By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
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).
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.
When he books his own jobs, the trucker says, he charges customers only a $100 deposit and collects the balance when the car is delivered. When he was screwed over by Sclafani, did he ever consider keeping a car hostage? "No," he says. "Why would I do that, when my complaint is with him?"
Sclafani ducks the blows from his customers by assuming different identities. He tells callers or visitors that "Greg" is out and that they are speaking to "John." If others ask for "John," he appears to have stepped out, too.
But "John," according to the case files, has been known to take an even tougher line than "Greg" with oldsters whose health may literally depend on their getting their cars delivered on schedule.
Florence Katz's troubles with Sclafani started in typical fashion. Around New Year's, she planned her annual sojourn in Florida, where she rents an apartment for a couple of months near a friend in Coconut Creek, a town north of Fort Lauderdale that is home to the world's largest butterfly aviary. Katz let her fingers do the walking and called Sclafani about moving her car.
Sclafani told her, she says, that he "had a truck heading to Florida in a couple days" and that "there were only two spots left." To get onboard, she says, he told her she had better give him a deposit right away by telling him her checking account number.
"A lot of older consumers don't realize the dangers of paying directly from their bank account," says a spokesman for the AG's Office. "With a debit card or a credit card, you can call your bank and have them reverse a fraudulent charge. Not so with a bank payment."
ABK advertises that it takes credit cards, but many people have sworn that the company gives them one reason or another why it can't process credit-card payments the day they sign contracts. So, they are told to give their checking account number.
After being quoted a price of $630, Katz signed a contract with Sclafani. But even taking the full payment of $630 from Katz wasn't enough. Though she'd made no return plans, Sclafani helped himself to another $630 for that not-yet-scheduled trip back to New York, documents show. He also took another $630, for no known reason. All told, he took $1,890 from a widowed nurse on a fixed income.
Katz's car actually arrived in Florida without incident. But her problems were just beginning.
As Katz was ultimately to learn, Sclafani apparently failed to pay the trucker who had hauled the car to Florida. Another thing she didn't know at the time was how much he had overcharged her. Finally, she wasn't aware that he was already in deep trouble with AG Cuomo's office for swindling hundreds of other New Yorkers.
If the absence of an "n" between "A" and "Eastern" wasn't enough cause for concern about the business, the presence of an "F" should be: With 285 complaints against it, that was ABK's rating from the Better Business Bureau—until it was downgraded a couple months ago from "F" to "Not Rated" and booted from the BBB entirely.
In March 2009, after receiving hundreds of complaints, Cuomo's office had begun to investigate Sclafani. By the time the AG formally filed a complaint on November 23 against Sclafani, his wife, and their variously named companies, alleging fraud and asking for restitution and damages, some 400 New Yorkers had come forward with allegations that they had been bilked.
A short time later, Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Bruce Cozzens issued the consent order and judgment. The Sclafanis had to pay $60,000 in restitution to customers and $65,000 in fees to the state, and they had to put up a $200,000 performance bond for possible future infractions.
Among other things, the Sclafanis were ordered to stop promising that vehicles would be delivered on specific dates and to stop double-dipping into their clients' bank accounts.
No chance. After Cuomo's office issued a press release this past February, announcing the court order because of "multiple fraudulent acts" and asking other customers who believed they also were ripped off by Sclafani to come forward, new complaints poured in.
Meanwhile, Katz ended her sojourn in Florida and flew back to New York. Her car was to follow, but the day her car was to be delivered to her by Sclafani's outfit came and went. A few more days went by. No car.
In mid-March, she spoke with Greg (or John), who was exceedingly polite to her: "He always spoke nicely. He kept telling me the car was coming, that it would just be a couple more days," she says.
Eventually, says Katz, Sclafani's wife started saying he wasn't in the office. Then ABK stopped answering its phone altogether.
Another week went by. Not knowing where else to turn, Katz called her local police precinct in Queens. A case like this immediately brings up jurisdictional headaches: She lives in New York City, Sclafani's company is in Nassau County, and her Honda was shipped from Florida. But a helpful Queens cop, in concert with police in Florida, tracked down her car.
Yes, it had been towed from Florida—not by A Blue Knight, but by Ajaco Towing. No, Florence Katz's car was not in New York. It was in Ajaco's yard in East Hanover, New Jersey.
"That was the first time I knew that he didn't do the work himself," Katz says of Sclafani. And that's when she and her car entered the Bermuda Triangle.
Ajaco told her that it had her car but would not deliver it to her door, even though that's what her contract called for. Of course, Ajaco told her, she was free to come to New Jersey to get it—after she paid them $1,400.
Katz's round-trip charges should have totaled $1,260. She'd already paid Sclafani $1,890, and now a company she had no idea she was doing business with was demanding $1,400 from her.
She says she told Ajaco that she could prove she paid Sclafani. But Sclafani hadn't paid Ajaco, and the towing company said it was holding her car until someone paid. Jason Cleffi, the owner of Ajaco, told Katz that he hadn't been paid for hauling her car from Florida to New York. In fact, she says, he told her he hadn't even been paid for hauling it to Florida in the first place.
It wasn't only Katz's car that was being held hostage. Inside the Honda were her walker, her laptop, and her medications. "My undergarments," she tells the Voice with quiet anger, "nearly all of them were in the trunk!" Cleffi, she says, assured her that at least she needn't fear her valuables would disappear. Her car was safe in their lot, until she (or Sclafani) paid up.
Stranded by the loss of her car and its contents, Katz stopped going to the gym and e-mailing people. She had to depend on her friends for rides and, worse, the notoriously unreliable Access-a-Ride. Longer walks—sans walker—were all the more difficult, if not impossible. Since she was living on a fixed income, she could not afford to rent a car or pay Ajaco in the hopes of getting her money back, someday, from A Blue Knight.
Just to stay alive, she had to shell out money to get more medication beyond the two weeks' worth she'd flown back with. And, of course, to get new prescriptions, she had to prove that she wasn't engaging in Rush Limbaugh–style doctor shopping.
Katz was in a real bind. Although Sclafani was bound by the judge's order, Ajaco was not. The court order left a gaping hole—dealing with the actual car transporters—and Katz's car had fallen right in the middle of it.
With her children living out of state and a grandson from overseas trying to help her from afar—and an Attorney General taking her complaint about a company in another state that was holding her car hostage—Katz says she was beginning to despair. That's when she met the Bilello family.
Marilyn Bilello, who lives in West Babylon, Long Island, was in a similar fix with Sclafani's outfit: Her car had gone down to Florida, but never came back up. Just like Katz, she had been charged for the trip down, the trip back, and an extra charge for no apparent reason.
She did, however, have one thing Katz didn't have: children nearby to fight on her behalf.
Daughter-in-law Marie took on Bilello's case almost as a full-time job. She tracked down a receipt from when her car had been picked up in Florida for the trip back and saw that two cars had been towed to New Jersey: one belonging to her family, and one belonging to a Florence Katz in Queens. Marie called her up.
"Florence sounded so sweet, and she was in the exact same position as Ma," Marie tells the Voice. "It's pathetic. I mean, this guy is trying to shake down two old ladies, who'd done nothing except pay their bills!"
Bilello's car, like Katz's, was being held hostage at Ajaco for "nonpayment." In some ways, Bilello was worse off than Katz: Her 2008 Honda Civic was not yet paid off. And in the part of Long Island where she lives, there is no Access-a-Ride for seniors. Bilello had to rent a car, and Ajaco told her it was charging her parking fees since she was "refusing" (as she says they put it) to pay up and pick up her vehicle.
So she was making car payments on a vehicle she couldn't use, being charged for parking by the company that wouldn't give it to her, and renting a separate vehicle, with money she couldn't afford to spend, to get around.
Marie spoke to Katz's family in the Midwest and compared notes. Growing impatient with both Sclafani (who was being conspicuously polite, but totally unhelpful) and Cleffi (who, she says, was growing more surly every day), she finally persuaded Cuomo's office in mid-April to call Ajaco. But she says Cleffi subsequently told her, "I don't have to deal with them! I'm Jersey." That's when Marie got on the horn to the New Jersey AG's office and also started pestering the FBI, the federal Department of Transportation, and Cleffi's insurer.
Cleffi, she says, called her at one point to say, "Why the hell are you having everyone call me? I don't need this!" She then got a paralegal friend to have a lawyer write a letter on their behalf, threatening to sue. She even tried to broker an agreement between A Blue Knight and Ajaco, trying to arrange for Sclafani to pay Cleffi the money he owed him. But nothing worked.
By the end of April, after six weeks of this hassle, Marie and her husband, John, made a decision: They were going to drive to East Hanover, call 9-1-1, and report the car stolen. They were about to leave on that trip, just the two of them, she says, when her husband stopped her and asked, "But who's going to drive Florence's car?" The Bilellos had adopted Katz's problem along the way and decided they couldn't try to retrieve their car in good conscience without rescuing hers, too.
Marie says John was hesitant to take his own mother, or Katz, along for the ride, afraid that things could get ugly. But when they called Katz about it, she immediately asked, "Can I come along?" They arranged to pick her up the next day in Queens for the trip to Jersey.
The confrontation came sooner than anyone predicted, but the trip they imagined didn't happen. When Cleffi got word that his insurer had been contacted by a lawyer, he called up Marie. She says he started screaming at her. As she recalls it: "He told me, 'Now I'm going to send both cars back to Florida. I'll slap a lien on them down there for nonpayment, and you'll never see them again!'" The phone call ended, she says, with her husband getting on the line and the two men screaming at each other until Cleffi hung up.
The Bilellos and Katz cooled it, and the next day, they called the New Jersey Attorney General's Office of Consumer Affairs, which called Ajaco. Cleffi never responded to repeated inquiries from the Voice, and the Jersey AG's office will not say what exactly was discussed on the phone. But that same day, Cleffi called up Marie Bilello and said, "The two cars will be by the side of the road, with the keys in the visors."
Fearful of the cars being stolen or of Cleffi changing his mind, Marie and John scooped up Marilyn and set out immediately. They called Katz and told her they didn't have time to come to Queens first, but they'd retrieve her car and drive it to her.
When they arrived in East Hanover, they stopped at the police department and asked for an escort. The cops, located just a few blocks from Ajaco's yard, admitted they knew Cleffi and declined to escort them, but said they'd "observe" from the end of the block, in case anything got out of hand.
When the Bilellos arrived at Ajaco, the two Hondas were there outside—along with "seven huge men who looked like the cast of The Sopranos," says Marie, adding, "My husband is a pretty big guy, so I wasn't scared. But it was weird, how they were staring us down the whole time, in silence." (Is there a mob angle here? The AG's Office says it doesn't know of one.)
Inside each car was a photocopy of a $1,400 check Ajaco had received from A Blue Knight that had bounced. Cleffi or someone else at Ajaco took a last shot at the old ladies, scrawling on the copies: "THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME NOT GET PAID!"
Marilyn drove straight home to Long Island, while Marie followed her husband as he drove the other car to Flushing, where they reunited a beaming Florence with her Honda and everything in it. Nothing had been stolen. "What wonderful people!" says Katz. Marie called to follow up with Sclafani about the extra money owed to her mother-in-law. He sent a money order and said the overcharge was "just a computer mistake." Marie recalls saying to him: "Funny, the exact same mistake happened to Florence Katz! What a coincidence, huh?"
According to a spokesman, the New York AG's Office can't just peremptorily shut down a business—it first has to go to court to sue for restitution. Now, however, the AG is suing Sclafani for contempt of the court order. It turns out that Cuomo also got stiffed: The AG's Office is claiming in court documents that Sclafani still owes $135,000 to the state.
Should Sclafani and his wife not voluntarily get out of the "auto transport business," Cuomo says, they should be jailed until they do so. Given how they've responded to court orders so far, the Attorney General's Office says in its paperwork that it wants to "permanently enjoin [them] from engaging in any retail or wholesale business in the State of New York."
Inspired by Florence Katz and the Bilellos, I was ready to do my own jousting with A Blue Knight. So I went to Long Island to get Greg Sclafani's side of the story. There were two addresses listed in business and court records. The first was in Syosset, a sleepy suburb on the LIRR. But on Ira Road, where A Blue Knight was supposed to be, there was only a tawdry strip mall. Flagging down a U.S. Postal Service mailman, I asked if he'd heard of a company called A Blue Knight, which was supposed to be located at No. 57.
"They screw you with your car?" he asked. (I hadn't said anything about cars.) With sympathy and a smile, the mailman explained that A Blue Knight merely got its mail at a P.O. box in the strip mall's UPS store.
The mailman knew that, he said, because people were always coming around looking for the person who had screwed them out of their vehicles. He said apologetically that he didn't know the company's real address.
Court records listed another location: 22 Bayville Avenue, in Bayville, a few towns farther east on the North Shore. But the building at that address looked as if it had recently burned down. I went to a pizzeria next door, and the guy behind the counter laughed when I asked him about A Blue Knight. "Is that the name they're going by now?" he said. "They change their fuckin' name every year."
When I told him the outfit might also be known as A Eastern Connection, he snapped his fingers and said, "That's the one! They're located downtown—just across the street from the fire department." (It turned out that court records list the address as 22 Bayville Avenue, but the actual address is 255 Bayville Avenue.)
"I can't believe they're still in business!" the pizza guy said as I was leaving, adding, "Good luck! He has a magnetic lock on the door so nobody can get in!"
The building housing A Blue Knight mostly just looked like an insurance agent's office. There was no auto yard in sight. The company's name was now "Transportation Specialists."
I tried to open the glass front door, but, true to the pizza guy's word, it was sealed for the owner's protection. People working inside were clearly visible, and eventually, a man I recognized from the Fox 5 consumer-help episodes as Sclafani came to the door.
"Greg's not here," Greg said.
"What about John?"
"No, he's not here, either."
"Who are you?"
"I'm . . . Pete."
"Pete" said he couldn't give me any information or even the name of "Greg's attorney," and slammed the door shut.
I snapped photos of the front of the business. Three employees inside covered their faces and then pulled down the window shades.
Eventually, "Pete" poked his head out again and screamed, "Get off my property! Get the hell off my property!"
"Your property?" I replied. "So you are Greg Sclafani, then?"
"I'll call the cops. I've already called the cops!" he shouted, slamming the door a second time, disappearing behind the drawn shades.
In truth, Florence Katz was more afraid of not getting her car back than of dying. Now she's more than happy to talk about how well everything has turned out. However, she couldn't do it the Monday after her car was returned: "I have to go to the gym," she told me. "I haven't been for ages!" When we finally talked in person a few days later, she said, "I'm not in the shape I used to be in. I used to work out five times a week."
But she's got her car, her meds, and her walker back. And her apartment seems to be back to normal. It looks spiffier now with her little white Mac laptop returned to its rightful place amid the '40s décor.