Feds Seek Israeli Suspects in ‘Operation Stow Biz’

By Nacha Cattan

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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The FBI is planning to ask the Israeli government to extradite a dozen Israelis indicted in a crackdown on several South Florida moving companies that allegedly scammed hundreds of clients.

Sixteen moving companies and 74 operators and owners, most of them Israelis, were indicted March 4 in Broward and Dade counties on charges of fraud and extortion. The arrests followed a two-year FBI investigation dubbed “Operation Stow Biz.” The movers were accused of luring customers with low estimates, inflating prices once the customers’ household goods were loaded on trucks and holding the furniture hostage until clients paid the new amounts, often double the original estimates.

So far 50 of the 74 indicted movers have been arrested. But at least 12 Israelis are at large and believed to be in Israel, according to Miami-based FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela. The FBI has released the names of three of the indicted movers thought to be in Israel: Zion Rokah, owner of Advanced Moving Systems in Sunrise, Fla.; Niv Borsuk of Express Van Lines in Miami, and Eyal Malul of Elite Van Lines Moving & Storage in Sunrise and Plantation, Fla.

“We’ll be working with the Israeli government trying to get them extradited back into the United States,” said Orihuela, who added that the FBI has yet to approach the Israeli government with its request.

Rokah, whose Advanced Moving Systems incurred the most charges of any of the companies, told reporters earlier this month — before fleeing to Israel — that recent investigations of the moving industry were motivated by antisemitism.

But the Anti-Defamation League, the Israeli consulate in Florida and the FBI discount these claims. The Israeli consul general to Florida and Puerto Rico, Miki Arbel, called Rokah’s charges “far-fetched accusations.” Arbel told the Forward from his office in Miami that the Israeli community in Florida, which he said numbers 30,000 to 50,000 people, is “sad” and “worried.” He added, “I would like to portray Israel in a nice way, and this doesn’t help me very much.”

Of the FBI’s planned extradition request, Arbel said, “there will be cooperation because there’s always been, and I don’t see why not.”

But Israel has not always been quick to turn over its criminals, native-born or otherwise. Samuel Sheinbein — a teenager from Maryland who claimed Israeli citizenship through his father — was not returned by Israel to the United States to face murder charges in 1997. Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, wanted in France on embezzlement and fraud charges, entered the Israeli election race in 1977 to avoid being extradited to France and actually won a seat in the Knesset.

The 74 Florida-based movers own or operate some 43 different moving companies, according to the FBI. Those companies are currently under FBI investigation. Orihuela told the Forward that many of the owners and workers are relatives or friends of one another from Israel, but she did not go so far as to suggest that they are part of an international crime ring.

Fraud carries a maximum term of five years imprisonment; extortion carries a maximum of 20 years.

One of the movers arrested in the sweep, Shlomo “Sam” Molaim, told the Forward in a telephone interview that his arrest had nothing to do with the company he now owns, Nation Movers. Nation Movers, based in Atlanta, is listed on the Miami FBI Website as one of the 43 companies whose movers were indicted last week. But the company itself was not among the 16 indicted. Speaking from his office after his release on bond, Molaim explained that he was arrested on charges of defrauding customers while he was a driver a year-and-a-half ago for Rokah’s Advanced Moving Systems.

Molaim denied the charges. “They claimed I held the stuff in exchange for money,” he said. “There wasn’t one time I did that.”

Although apparently not motivated by antisemitism, the arrests have sparked some hateful language and conspiracy theories on Web sites created for those who have been scammed by movers. Some incensed customers posted messages on movingscams.com calling the movers Israeli terrorists. One person wrote: “I read an article not too long ago that said terrorists would slowly creep in and disrupt our daily life, just what these Israelis are doing.”

But the southern area director of the ADL, Art Teitelbaum, said he has no reason to believe Florida’s law enforcement is engaged in “any type of antisemitic or anti-Israeli conspiracy.” About the hateful postings, Teitelbaum said, “I don’t put any credence into those kinds of complaints, which by their own description are speculations in the context of anger over a commercial transaction.”

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