'Predatory towing' fight brews
Disputes over parking pit drivers against tow truck operators.
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On Christmas Eve in Palm Desert, Calif., police arrested three tow truck drivers after an investigation "revealed that the towing service was committing auto thefts and extortion under the guise of legitimate tows," according to the arrest report.
Hitching onto the insular, cash-driven and lightly regulated tow truck industry, dozens of communities from Asheville to Davenport, Iowa to Fairview Ore., are exposing a shadowy and controversial front in the parking wars.
Taken together, recent headlines from around the country offer a glimpse into the nebulous underworld of "predatory towing" where risk-taking parking scofflaws share some of the blame with wildcatting tow truck drivers.
But the tension is building as downtown congestion grows, the troubled economy puts pressure on tow companies' cash flow, and what drivers see as their rights increasingly conflict – all summed up by that sinking feeling of perusing a parking lot for a car that is no longer there.
"There are tow companies out there that are becoming more and more visible, out there hijacking cars," says Ron Smith, of Houston-based Compiled Logic, which tracks "non-consensual tows." "Space gets short, communities expand, parking becomes premium, and people ... set up places and try to pull vehicles."
After largely deregulating the towing industry in 1996, Congress tried to address the excesses starting in 2005, when a clause in the federal highway bill gave states and municipalities greater authority to oversee local towing practices.
That led to a tough new law in California that mandates large signage, no cash-only requirements, and no fee if a driver reaches the lot before the tow truck driver has left. A similar New York law went into effect in October, outlawing "kickbacks" from towing companies to property owners for allowing them to tow cars at will from their lots.
Now, with some 30,000 nonconsensual tows taking place in the US each day – most legal, but many not – dozens of communities are also taking advantage of the 2005 law. New ordinances address the chief complaints from drivers: lack of reliable signage, egregious towing and impound fees, and cash-only policies.
"We know that there are some illegal and unethical practices going on," says Captain Tim Splain of the Asheville Police Department. "If you can yank 12 or 14 cars a night at $150 a pop, that's a pretty lucrative proposition."
A growing issue in many cities
Indeed, predatory towing – or "private lot towing," as the towing industry prefers to call it – has become a huge issue in destination cities like Asheville and Davenport, Iowa, detailed in lengthy letters to the editor and debated, often hotly, on Internet comment boards.