When Linda Joy, a University of Maryland student, returned to the parking lot on campus Tuesday not far from her dormitory, her car was gone. Campus police told her the car had been improperly parked on the snow-choked lot and was hauled away to make room for the plows.

"I'm just a poor college student," said an exasperated Joy yesterday, having had to shell out $36 to a College Park towing company, and still owing the university $5 for a parking ticket.

Joy is one of thousands of car owners whose transportation was whisked away by orders of local or state police during the snow clean-up efforts of the last several days. Prince George's County police said they had 455 cars towed; Montgomery County police, some 2,000; the District 1,500. Officials in Virginia said they had "hundreds" towed, but would not be specific. State police for Maryland and Virginia said they have impounded about 200 cars.

Towing of illegally parked cars generally began last Saturday, according to police and transportation officials. Most illegal parking occured around apartment complexes, officials said, because apartment parking lots were full of snow.

Since police in Virginia and Maryland do not have their own equipment, they have used numerous local companies to do the towing. The District's Department of Transportation has used its own 10 tow trucks, and yesterday began impounding precariously parked vehicles. So far, only a handful have been impounded, according to transportation officials.

Tow company operators said they have seen more than a few angry car owners lately. "People thought they had put them in a safe spot," said Dottie Broadway, office manager for Raley's Towing in Seat Pleasant.

That's what Linda Joy thought when she parallel parked her car against a large snow bank. Campus police, who said they told students on Monday to move their cars off the campus lots, said Joy was obstructing a driveway. "Where else was I supposed to park?" Joy asked. There were 26 other Maryland students in her predicament, campus police said.

Joy's towing bill--$36--is about a dollar higher than the $35 average for Maryland and Virginia companies, if workers don't have to dig the car out of the snow. In D.C., car owners pay about $50. In addition, towing companies charge a $6 or $7 nightly fee for storage.

But the snow-tow business is not as profitable as some might think, said Woody Peacock at Palmer Texaco in Seat Pleasant, especially "counting the extra help you have to hire."