Lured by the promise of better pay and the American dream, some truck drivers from Eastern European countries claim they were sold a bill of goods after arriving in the U.S.
Drivers told FreightWaves that recruiters said they could earn more money in a month hauling cars in America than they could make in an entire year in their home countries.
The average yearly pay for a truck driver in Russia is roughly equivalent to $4,700, according to Salary Explorer. Truck drivers earn even less in Ukraine — about $3,100.
So when the drivers saw the YouTube and Facebook ads offering to pay them up to $3,000 per week to transport cars in the U.S., they jumped at the opportunity to make a better life for their families and achieve the American dream. Others wanted to earn money to help support family back in Russia and Ukraine.
However, once in America, the drivers told FreightWaves, they found themselves trapped in an alleged human trafficking scheme, forced to drive seven days a week and up to 20 hours a day and getting paid a fraction of what they were promised.
Dangerous trafficking scheme
Chris, who is from Eastern Europe, asked that he not be identified by his real name. He used to work as a truck driver hauling cars for one of the companies owned or managed by Dmitriy and Inna Chebanenko and other members of the Chebanenko family.
He told FreightWaves he once was forced to drive 50 hours straight to make a customer deadline.
He described his system to stay awake — drinking tea with lemon juice because it was sour and kept him alert, then switching to Red Bull, then coffee — and a soda. And then he mixed them up.
“The first 20 hours were all right because I was used to it,” Chris said.
But the remaining 30 hours were tough and Chris said he started seeing things in the road that weren’t there. At one point he fell asleep behind the wheel because the warm sun was beaming through his windshield.
“I woke up to the sounds of horns beeping,” he told FreightWaves. “I started in the right lane and drifted into the left lane. It was dangerous. I shouldn’t have been driving.”
Chris said he didn’t want to do this, but he felt trapped and feared reprisal from the owners if he refused to drive because he was tired.
Instead, he found himself working illegally through an alleged immigration scam for little pay. He said he wasn’t alone.
“There are hundreds of guys out there just like me,” Chris said. “We worked hard and drove long hours, but we weren’t paid close to what we were promised.”
When he was running out of hours he could legally drive on some of his trips, Chris said he would receive a text message from a number in Ukraine.
“OK, I see you are close to the limit,” he said the text messages read. “Stand by and I will adjust your [electronic logging device] time.”
Other drivers confirmed to FreightWaves this happened to them as well.
At the time, Chris said he drove for Wild Eagle, headquartered in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and the carrier used Ezlogz to keep track of drivers’ hours.
Donna Overby, director of operations of Ezlogz, confirmed that the “Chebanenkos did at one point use Ezlogz in the past, but they did not return the Ezlogz equipment.”
“Any usage of the equipment after their time with us was unauthorized and does not reflect Ezlogz in any way.”
The company said its system “does not permit manipulation of data, but has an edit function subject to the driver’s ultimate approval, which is standard and is consistent with [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations]. However, under that system, all changes are automatically recorded, and drive time cannot be edited, changed, or manipulated in any way.”
FreightWaves found logbook companies based in Eastern Europe that use private Facebook groups in the U.S. to advertise services to “edit logs to add more time, fix safety violations and transfer output files to FMCSA.” Most of the trucking company owners, managers or drivers are originally from Russia and Ukraine.
FMCSA revoked Wild Eagle’s authority in October 2019, seven months after it opened. During that time, the company was inspected 176 times and racked up 253 safety violations, according to FMCSA data.
Chasing the American dream
A FreightWaves investigation told the story of Svyatoslav Likanov and his wife, who were on vacation when she went into premature labor and gave birth to the couple’s son eight weeks early. After “borders started closing” because of COVID, he and his family were unable to fly back to Russia.
Desperate for money, Likanov went to work for one of the Chebanenko companies. Not all of the trucking companies list the Chebanenkos as owners, but Likanov said the couple runs the day-to-day operations behind the scenes.
Likanov’s decision to go public with his allegations of being forced to drive up to 140 hours per week, alleging logbook manipulation and money withheld from his paychecks, led other drivers to come forward with allegations against the Chebanenkos and family members who owned or operated several auto-hauling companies.
While Chris has not contacted authorities, Likanov said he has been in contact with the FBI.
Dmitriy Chebanenko did not return FreightWaves’ telephone calls or email requesting comment about Likanov’s allegations. The Chebanenkos’ attorney, Fedor A. Kozlov, also did not return calls.
The pursuit of the American dream led some drivers to pay thousands of dollars to immigration consultants like Yury Mosha to help them fill out immigration paperwork and coach them on how to get a green card.
Mosha was indicted by federal prosecutors in an alleged fraudulent asylum scheme in February. He has been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit asylum fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Prosecutors claim Mosha, 45, of Staten Island, New York, ran immigration firm Russian America’s Manhattan office. Mosha encouraged clients to establish and maintain blogs that were critical of their home countries in order to seek political asylum “under fraudulent pretenses,” according to the indictment.
After a few days of training, during which the drivers were paid $50 a day and received limited education about federal regulations that govern the trucking industry, former drivers said they set out across the country delivering vehicles. The drivers claim they were told they didn’t need commercial driver’s licenses and to avoid weigh stations. If they were ticketed for being overweight, money would be deducted from their pay, as well as $1,000 to $2,500 if they were involved in an accident.
Some of the drivers, who mainly drove Ford F-350 pickup trucks with auto-hauler trailers, removed their back seats and slept on the floor of their trucks.
Getting paid became a sticky situation for many drivers who had not been told prior to signing on to drive with the auto-hauling companies, mainly based in the Midwest, that their pay would be withheld until after they finished driving for the carrier for six months. Some said they needed money for food and living expenses and had promised to send money back home.
“They have tricky things there where you are to get $50 per day, but in the end, they hold up my last paycheck for $2,100 and they deduct from me $1,400 because they paid the trainer’s pay from my money,” Chris told FreightWaves. “I only got 700 bucks from the $2,100 I was owed.”
When he tried to ask about the deduction in his pay, he said company employees ignored his phone calls and texts.
Besides enduring inhumane working conditions, drivers claim their equipment wasn’t safe and that they often drove on bald tires or with worn-out brakes.
“They squeeze everything they can out of us but pay us very little, or if we make a mistake because we are tired, they keep all of our pay,” one former driver, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal, told FreightWaves.
These situations highlight the reality that not only women and children are victims of human trafficking, industry observers say.
“Many of us in the trucking industry know this is nothing less than human trafficking and that’s been going on since the 1990s when the Berlin Wall fell,” Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association (WSTA), told FreightWaves. “Men from Eastern Europe and India were brought over by some companies with false promises of a better life and were enslaved to drive a truck.”
Prior to taking an administrative role with WSTA, Rajkovacz hauled produce for nearly 30 years.
“It doesn’t engender a lot of sympathy when a male is being trafficked, but the destruction to the human soul is just as equal as it is to anyone else,” he said. “This is an organized effort to bring people here, strips them of their dignity, leaves them in a whole new country where they know nothing and essentially they are coerced into paying back outlandish fees for getting working papers and that’s even if they have them.”
Once they decide to leave a company, some are forced into hiding with few resources and little money.
“They are kind of in limbo — most don’t have the resources to fly back to their home countries because their pay was withheld or they wind up in a similar situation again working for another company that uses the same illegal business practices,” Rajkovacz said.