A Portsmouth, Virginia, moving and storage company postponed an auction of 105 crates containing 47 service members' household goods following an onslaught of social-media outrage.
Part of the firestorm may have been lit by one of the photos that accompanied a since-removed post advertising the event. It featured boxes that weren't part of the auction, the seller says -- including boxes belonging to at least one service member who'd dropped off his items in April.
The vice president of Bay Area Movers, Robin Villers, insists the company was not planning to auction off "lost freight," as some have alleged. The property being auctioned off has been at the storage facility after the service members' entitlement for government-paid storage expired -- 20 years, in some cases.
The service members have not paid the storage fees during that time, Villers said, adding that nothing set for auction had gone less than five years without payment.
A spokesman for Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, which oversees and sets policy for the program that moves service members' household goods, said "there's more to the situation than meets the eye," and that the moving company had followed proper procedures to attempt to contact the owners of the goods.
"We want the people who have been outraged to understand this personal property is very old and has been at the storage facility for decades," command spokesman Fred Rice told Military Times.
A Wednesday post at USMC Life highlighted the auction, the photo featuring recently packed goods, and the advertising copy written by Gene Daniels Auctioneers, which suggests the sealed boxes could include "HIDDEN TREASURES" obtained by service members and their families during overseas duty.
It also asked readers to register their complaints on social media. The auction site's Facebook rating sat at 1.2 stars as of Thursday morning, with the overwhelming majority of one-star reviews coming this week. The mover's Yelp review page has been similarly bombarded with negative feedback, so much so that the review site is monitoring it "for content related to media reports."
'WE DON'T WANT TO HURT THEM'
Villers said the company has repeatedly – for years -- tried to contact the service members whose property was scheduled to be sold. She said they don't have information to know whether they are still in the military.
"We've never taken any military member to collections, never taken any military member to court. We don't want to hurt them financially or hurt their credit," Villers said. "A lot of these members are enlisted and don't get paid a lot."
Since the family-owned business started operating in 1985, they're never held an auction of storage items, she said.
But because the company hasn't taken any of these people to court, it's not clear whether auctioning off these household goods would be illegal, especially if these service members are still on active duty. Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a storage lien can't be enforced against service members during, or 90 days after, their period of military service – without a court order.
The Justice Department has taken enforcement action in the past against companies who sold service members' items in storage, in some cases while troops were deployed. And over the years, service members have filed suit against storage companies after their household goods were sold off without their knowledge, and without a court order.
A source in the legal community said the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Justice Department are aware of the situation and are monitoring it. Rice said the Norfolk personal property shipping office is checking into whether any of the service members are still on active duty.
About half of the people whose property is being sold had responded to the company earlier that they no longer want their property, Villers said. Many people have left the area, and it would be cost-prohibitive for them to pay to ship these items, especially if they no longer want or need them, she said.
"We want them to have their things. But we can't make people take their things," she said. "We've begged them to take their items."
Villers said she found out too late that supposedly-generic pictures the auctioneer had taken at the warehouse of service members' crates included some crates that were not in the batch that will be auctioned off. A service member called the company, concerned that his property was being sold – just days after it was picked up by Bay Area and brought to their warehouse awaiting shipments overseas.
When the photo was blown up, his name was visible on the crate. Puzzled, company officials checked the files, then tracked down the picture on the website and realized what had happened, Villers said. They quickly called the auctioneer and he took down the photos.
"He made an innocent mistake," she said.
Rice said SDDC officials had checked into that service member's personal property, and confirmed with him that it's on track to be shipped from Norfolk to Germany.
The military pays for temporary storage for 90 days, and can provide extensions of time based on the situation. The personal property office contacts the service members 30 days before the storage entitlement runs out, and the storage company contacts the service member about the property, by certified mail. If the service member needs more time in temporary storage after the military entitlement ends, he or she makes arrangements with the storage company to pay them.
In this case, Rice said, the proper notification steps were taken.
Most of the crates involve "unaccompanied baggage" shipments, Villers said. Those shipments are small shipments generally with linens, dishes and clothing which are sent ahead to provide items needed immediately, before the bulk of the household goods arrive.
She cited cases where service members have negotiated much lower payments on unpaid bills, including a recent case where a service member owed $10,000 but retrieved the household goods after a payment of $1,500.
"We follow the government's rules," Villers said. "We've been letting this pile up. ... It's overtaking our warehouse."
Staff writer Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.