Driver says trucking company threatened family after he alleged illegal practices
A former car hauler said he and his family were forced into hiding after blowing the whistle on his trucking company’s alleged illegal business practices, which he claimed included dispatchers falsifying electronic logs in violation of federal regulations and withholding his pay for various reasons, leaving him with just enough money to buy food.
Pushed to his breaking point, Amstel Inc. driver Svyatoslav Likanov told FreightWaves, he used washable red paint to write, “Warning, I need help stopping this company’s crimes” on the side of his 2019 Ford F-350 and “Help” on the back of the GMC SUV he was hauling and parked his equipment in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower in downtown Chicago on June 19, 2020. He then called the police.
Earlier that day, after delivering two of the cars, Likanov said he and his wife had packed up their belongings from the room they rented from Dmitriy and Inna Chebanenko, the owners, managers or bookkeepers of several car-hauling companies based in Illinois, Indiana, Colorado and Florida, and left.
“I found myself in a hopeless situation,” Likanov told FreightWaves. “I felt threatened if I complained about driving sleepy because the Chebanenkos said if I refused to drive, they would fire me and not give me my salary, which they had kept for three months. My family would be kicked out of our room, which was also deducted from my pay.”
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.
Likanov said he was expected to drive up to seven days a week, 20 hours a day, but he missed spending time with his wife and son, and his pay was still being withheld.
He said the Chebanenkos have a dispatching office in Ukraine, which he called the “Boss Control Room.” Dispatchers there contact brokers and drivers in the U.S. and “engage in the falsification of drivers’ logbooks,” Likanov said.
“Various employees called me from Ukraine and made manipulations in the application of my electronic logbook,” he said. “I was sent messages every day from employees from Ukraine, who changed my data.”
The Chebanenkos used EZLOGS an ELD provider listed on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s self-certified list. The ELD platform was developed by Sergey “CJ” Karman in 2015 after more than 12 years in the logistics industry, with more than five years as a truck driver, then an owner-operator, broker and safety director of a trucking company. Ezlogz is headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, but also has offices in Schaumburg, Illinois, and Kyiv, Ukraine.
Donna Overby, director of operations of Ezlogz, said she’s heard of some trucking companies with offices in different countries manipulating drivers’ e-logs, but that Ezlogz doesn’t condone the practice and strictly follows the technical requirements outlined by the FMCSA.
“Ezlogz follows FMCSA’s regulations to the T,” Overby told FreightWaves. “We don’t do anything extra, we don’t do anything under.”
“The Chebanenkos did at one point use Ezlogz in the past, but they did not return the Ezlogz logo equipment,” Ezlogz said in a statement. “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 FMCSA, but, under that system, all changes are automatically recorded, and drive time cannot be edited, changed, or manipulated in any way.”
Vacation turns into nightmare amid COVID-19 pandemic
Likanov and his wife, who are from St. Petersburg, Russia, decided to take one last vacation before their first child was born. Neither had been to America, and Likanov said he couldn’t wait to see the skyscrapers as they flew over New York City.
However, Likanov said their trip turned into a nightmare shortly after arriving in New York City. His wife went into premature labor and gave birth to the couple’s son eight weeks early. Then almost immediately after their son was born, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. “Borders started closing” and he and his family were unable to fly back to Russia.
“I had my own business back in Russia, but I couldn’t get back home for a long time so I lost my financial income,” Likanov said. “I needed to find a job to provide for my wife and my baby son.”
Desperate for money as the couple’s vacation funds were running low, Likanov said he visited some churches in the area, seeking assistance for his family and explaining they were stranded in America because of COVID. He was turned down.
Then he watched a YouTube video by Sergey “Sisun” Kaluzhin, who fled Russia in 2018 and sought asylum in the U.S. His video, reviewed by FreightWaves, urged Russians to come to the U.S. on a tourist visa and find good-paying jobs that he then steered to the Chebanenkos’ trucking companies transporting cars, Likanov said.
The big draw, Kaluzhin said, was that drivers didn’t need to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to transport cars in the U.S. — a claim that drivers who worked for the Chebanenkos and their relatives largely dispute. Most of their loads exceeded the 10,000-pound limit, and they were often ticketed for being overweight and cited for not having a CDL when pulled over by commercial vehicle inspectors.
Russian officials allege that Kaluzhin, a former real estate developer in Russia, sought political asylum in the U.S. because he allegedly stole 4.5 billion rubles, equal to about $61.3 million, from 862 families who prepaid him to build new apartments.
In February, Kaluzhin’s attorney, Yury Mosha, who appeared in one of Kaluzhin’s YouTube videos on how to obtain a green card to work in the U.S., was indicted by Federal prosecutors in an alleged fraudulent asylum scheme. 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 his 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.
The lure of good money — and the letdown
After the Chebanenkos checked his driver’s license, Likanov said he was offered a job and he and his wife and newborn son traveled to Melrose Park, Illinois, to meet and train with Vitaly Gorokh, a manager for the Chebanenkos’ trucking companies.
Part of his training, Likanov said, was to avoid all weigh stations. If he went through one and was fined, it would be deducted from his pay. Also, if he was in an accident while driving for Amstel, he claims Gorokh said $1,000 would be deducted from his pay. FreightWaves reached out to Gorokh for a comment, but neither his email address nor his phone number was working.
“I was sent on an internship with one of the drivers for the company and would be paid $50 a day,” Likanov said. “After six days of the internship, I was hired by Inna Chebanenko to work for Gig Logistics and her Amazing Rides company that had an Amstel logo and DOT number on the side of the truck.”
Not all of the trucking companies list the Chebanenkos as owners, but Likanov said the couple runs the day-to-day trucking operations behind the scenes.
Instead of receiving $300 for his six days as an intern, Likanov said he was paid $150.
“I was told that I would receive the rest of the money after I worked at Amstel for six months,” he said.
While his wife and son settled into a room owned by the Chebanenkos, Likanov said he hit the road hauling cars sent to him by company dispatchers from Ukraine.
He and other drivers who worked for the Chebanenkos were expected to gross $5,000 per week, and if customers paid in cash for the vehicles, Likanov said the drivers were instructed to send the cash via FedEx. Meanwhile, he claims he barely earned enough money to pay for food while transporting cars across the country.
Shortly after being hired to drive for Amstel, Likanov said he was involved in a crash. Instead of the company deducting $1,000 from his pay, he claims the accounting department took $2,500.
Although he worked as many as 140 hours per week, Likanov said he realized he was never going to climb out of the financial hole if he continued to work for the trucking company.
Amstel’s authority was revoked by the FMCSA last September, three months after Likanov left. While the carrier, which had 120 drivers, only operated for 10 months, the company was inspected 315 times and received 202 citations.
Amstel drivers were cited 49 times for operating a commercial motor vehicle without a CDL. Inspectors cited the carrier 56 times for having a false report of drivers’ record-of-duty status, 10 times for driving beyond the 11-hour driving limit and nine times for driving more than 14 hours.
Amstel was cited five times for failing to ensure the ELD automatically recorded the required data elements and seven times for drivers who failed to certify the accuracy of the information gathered by the ELD. Its drivers were involved in eight crashes in a 10-month period, and the company received numerous violations for operating unsafe equipment, according to FMCSA data.
Life on the run
After learning more about the car-hauling business by talking with drivers at truck stops, Likanov found out that his loads exceeded 10,000 pounds, requiring a CDL.
He also asked if their companies doctored their logs, forcing them to drive seven days a week and 20 hours a day. Truckers explained how FMCSA’s hours-of-service regulations worked and that he and other drivers for the Chebanenkos were driving illegally.
After he brought up these issues in an internal Facebook group, Likanov said he started receiving threats from managers and the Chebanenkos, who he claims “displayed handguns” when he asked about not receiving three months of his pay and being forced to drive “sleepy.”
“This forced me to strike so the public would know about their crimes,” he said.
After appealing to the police and the public for help by writing on the vehicles in washable paint and driving to Trump International Hotel and Tower, Likanov said Chicago police recorded his statement and recommended he contact FMCSA and federal authorities.
He then left in the truck and drove to a fast-food restaurant to get food for his family. While he waited in the truck, Likanov said, his wife went inside.
“A Chebanenko employee ran up to my truck and hit me, took the keys and tried to pull me out of my seat, but I had my seatbelt on,” he said. “When he saw my son in the back seat, he left.”
After police arrived, he offered to wash the paint off of the vehicles. He turned the truck and trailer over to company employees and loaded the family’s belongings into Chicago police cars, and Likanov said he and his family were taken to a hotel for the night.
Throughout the night, he said, he received threats from Dmitriy Chebanenko. Likanov said he and his family contacted the FBI the next morning and left the state. Likanov claims federal agents are looking into the Chebanenkos. However, the Chebanenkos have filed a lawsuit against Likanov over his allegations.
The FBI said it had no comment when reached by FreightWaves.
The Likanovs have been on the run since.
In August, while chatting with his wife and a Russian video blogger known as Feliks, who immigrated to the U.S. four years ago, at a Waffle House in Florida, their picture was taken and posted on Telegram, a social media site commonly used by Eastern European countries.
The photo caption in the Telegram message sent by an alleged Chebanenko employee said, “They are being followed and will be killed at the first opportunity. Let him know. Ahaha.”
Feliks, who is from the same hometown in Russia as the Likanovs, said he wanted to help them after he lost nearly $100,000 in a bad business deal.
“I want to help Svyatoslav because I remember that helpless feeling,” Feliks told FreightWaves. “I want people who want to go to the United States and work here to know the story of Svyatoslav Likanov so they aren’t harmed in the same way.”