Predatory towing infuriates its victims but survives anyway
By Petula Dvorak,
Yes, yes. I’ll put it out there right now.
I’m all worked up about predatory towing because I was towed. And it was ugly.
Predatory towing, in case you haven’t had the unfortunate experience, is the underbelly of a totally legal arrangement that lets private tow truck companies make agreements with private businesses to clear out their parking lots whenever they spot a violation.
I understand the need for businesses to reserve their parking lots for customers. It must be disastrous for a small business to lose revenue when non-customers clog its spaces, sure.
But that’s not all that is going on here.
The cases that infuriate people are the private parking lots that are quite literally baited traps — a cash cow for the towing companies at all hours.
It’s something that happens all over the region, and it’s been going on for years.
Earlier this summer, The Washington Post’s Victor Zapana wrote about the outrage over predatory towing in Montgomery County, where tow trucks haul away about 30,000 to 40,000 cars each year.
And because Montgomery’s towers can charge you $168 for being towed, that’s a $6 million annual industry for the haulers. That’s not counting any storage fees or an outrageous $350 notification fee that one motorist told the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America he was charged for the letter telling him where his car was.
According to a recent survey by that association, the District is among the worst U.S. cities for towing. The suburbs aren’t much better. In Fairfax County, about 45,000 vehicles are towed each year.
Across the board, these numbers and cases have been increasing.
“The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that claims of inflated towing or storage bills have increased 57 percent since 2009,” according to the insurers association. “Many respondents noted that it felt like the vehicle was being held hostage.”
Read some of the stories online — people getting towed from a Goodwill lot while dropping off a donation, outside their own gym, from the lot of a bank before it opened. In many cases, the people were even parked legally, but they usually have no recourse other than to call and complain.
When citizen outrage came to a head in Montgomery during a County Council hearing in June, we heard stories from families who had their cars towed from the very restaurant they were patronizing — the tow truck spotter (yes, the companies hire spotters to prowl lots for cars to tow) simply was confused and didn’t see everyone in the car go into the restaurant.
Various councils have made stabs at trying to fix this problem, and every few months you’ll see a news story about a court case or government council crackdown on an unscrupulous tower.
There are blogs and Web sites dedicated to the hatred of predatory towing.
In 2009, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) introduced a bill to help local governments rein the towers in, saying that “no level of government has been able to adequately regulate the towing industry. This lack of regulatory authority has led to more than a decade of major consumer abuses by some unscrupulous towing companies across the country,” according to his remarks in the Congressional Record.
But the bill went nowhere, and all local governments can do is regulate the amount a wrecker can charge: $168 in Montgomery, $75 in Alexandria, $100 in the District.
And through personal experience, I learned tow truck drivers get $125 every time they hook a car in Arlington.
Here’s how it worked with me:
We bought a used bookcase on Craigslist. The seller lived in a very popular section of Clarendon, in one of those fancy-lobby high-rises.
We circled and circled, but all the street parking near the place was full, and it was getting late. It was a huge piece of furniture, and we’d have to park close to the entrance to get it to the roof of the car.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry cleaner that was closed, right next to the building entrance. And, yes, there was a sign that said towing was enforced 24 hours.
I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on.
It took 10 minutes tops for them to sweep in, in the 9 o’clock darkness of a Wednesday night. Just as we huffed and puffed out the door with the bookcase, the tow truck was peeling out of the lot, complete with cartoonlike sparks as the undercarriage slammed the curb. Chasing, running (and, yes, cursing) ensued. No luck.
Our Craigslist bargain just cost us $125 more.
It was frustrating and maddening. Yes, there was a sign. And yes, those are the rules.
But let’s be honest: At that hour, we were not hurting that business.
Frankly, the dry cleaner could make plenty of money by charging for parking in those spaces when the starched shirts are asleep but the nearby bars and restaurants are abuzz. I’d gladly stuff a few bucks into the money slot for peace of mind.
It was a setback for us, but not a devastation.
The problem is, a lot of people aren’t that lucky.
An extra $125 can devastate someone. And if they don’t have the cash that night, after they’ve found their way to the impound lot? It’s another $50 each day you can’t get the vehicle back. That can really hurt someone who is struggling, especially if they need the car for work.
But as cities are powerless to regulate this practice and states struggle with hundreds of complaint calls that come in from people who were towed, common sense is lost.
And we are just fools who paid $103 for a cup of coffee, $180 to pick up takeout Chinese food and, yes, $225 for an old, used bookcase.
Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read other columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.