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.
"In today's marketing world, wary customers rely on word of mouth more than any other medium, and if we become known as a city that is tow-happy it could greatly affect our visitation numbers," says Kelly Miller, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce and a recently appointed city councilor in Asheville. "There's got to be a better mousetrap to handle all this stuff."
Moreover, critics say tow truck operators tend to focus on areas where there are lots of students and immigrants – people less likely to squawk and more likely to pay up. John Hoff, a Minneapolis author and chief blogger at the TowingUtopia web site, says the trend is worrisome because it tends to affect the poor more than the rich. Equally disturbing to many drivers: A quarter of all towed cars are never claimed – often because they can't be found because of jurisdictional issues and a lack of transparency in the system.
"A couple of days in jail in some ways is less harmful, less of an intrusion on your liberty, than taking your car away," says Mr. Hoff. "There's this huge lack of regulation and really anybody with a hook and a truck can try their hand at this kind of thing and get away with it."
Just ask Dean Middleton. A dental assistant in Asheville, Mr. Middleton recently left his 1987 Ford Ranger at a downtown lot after, he says, receiving permission from the property owner. When he returned, the car was gone. A week later, he found his truck parked at the back of a field. He suspects the truck operator was waiting to take possession of it under state forfeiture laws and sell it either at auction or for scrap. "I felt like someone was trying to steal something from me," says Middleton.
But if industry deregulation has played a role in this cat and mouse game, so have social forces and lack of preparation for an onslaught of vehicles into smaller cities trying to become residential and business hubs, says Siim Soot, of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Often, the only way to minimize the congestion problem is to tow vehicles," says Professor Soot. "And there's a little bit of gamesmanship here where you can try to park and sort of beat the system by being there long enough so that you can conduct business, but not so long so someone can tow the vehicle. Some people are just willing to take the risk."
Tow drivers say they're scapegoats
Indeed, many tow truck operators say they're simply scapegoats for a more insidious problem caused by city officials failing to anticipate public parking needs – or trying to profit from high parking fees. Already beset by rising insurance premiums, high equipment costs, and low motor club reimbursement rates, they sometimes have to literally fight to make a living. That's one reason why the number of tow truck operations has gone from 130,000 to 30,000 in the last two decades.
"What makes a lot of operators so hard to deal with and so tough is because people want to fight all the time – nobody is happy to get their car towed," says Tom Luciano, a towing industry consultant in Pottersville, New York.
In Davenport, tow truck company owner Dan Wallace has been called a jackal and a vulture on TV – by the mayor of the city, no less. His crime? Aggressively patrolling an apartment building parking lot managed by Susan Graham, who says Mr. Wallace is "doing an awesome job" protecting her tenants' parking spaces.
"The city has issued too many business licenses and too much residential occupancy for the amount of parking available," says Wallace. "So people take a chance."
Defending his practice of stationing a tow truck downtown to patrol the parking lot, Wallace says, "It's no different than a speed trap or a red light camera."