Towing companies that swoop in to haul away cars parked for a minute longer than the rules allow or that charge owners exorbitant fees to get their vehicles back would be more tightly regulated under legislation introduced by a Montgomery County Council member Tuesday.

Towing from lots in shopping centers, apartment complexes and other private property is a $5 million-a-year business in Montgomery, county officials estimate, involving about 40,000 vehicles. Overly aggressive or predatory towing is also the most frequent complaint lodged with the county’s Office of Consumer Protection. The number of “non-consensual tow complaints” grew from 77 in 2007 to 193 in 2013, before dipping to 141 last year.

Property owners often sign contracts with towing operators that involve no fees but allow the companies to keep whatever they charge to return vehicles to their owners. The bill is an attempt to hold both tow firms and the property owners who hire them more accountable.

“We’ve turned our parking lots into lucrative fishing holes,” said Eric Friedman, the consumer protection director. “It’s become a bounty system. It was never intended that [if] you walk away for 30 seconds that you would be towed.”

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), the bill’s sponsor, said predatory towing is pervasive in the county, hurting consumers and businesses.

“Predatory towing is a consumer protection issue, an economic development issue and a public safety issue,” Berliner said.

Other states and localities, including Maryland and Arlington County, have passed tougher
anti-towing laws. But Montgomery officials say that their proposal will break new ground.

The bill would outlaw “spotting,” the term for tow company workers who are deployed to watch for drivers who park and then walk off of the property that owns the parking space. The towing industry won a court challenge last year to a 2012 Maryland towing law that included anti-spotting provisions. But county officials said they think the language in their bill will withstand judicial scrutiny.

The bill would allow the county executive to set a flat rate for towing and storage of vehicles. The measure would also require property owners to keep towing logs and to give their express permission for removal of vehicles between 2 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Betty Cornwell, executive director of Towing and Recovery Professionals of Maryland, an industry trade group, said her members are merely doing the job that they were hired to do. She added that existing state law is adequate, provided that property owners use reputable towing firms. The problem, she said, is less-scrupulous players who have entered the industry.

“The manufacturers will sell a tow truck to anybody,” Cornwell said.

Berliner’s bill is one of two proposed towing industry overhauls in the works. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is preparing to send his own version to the council. Spokesman Patrick Lacefield said it would be “more comprehensive and robust” and that the two bills would probably be “cobbled together.”

In other action, council members introduced bills to establish two new taxes designed to generate fresh streams of funding as other revenue declines.

One is a 30 percent excise tax on the wholesale price of e-cigarettes. Electronic cigarettes are not subject to state tobacco taxes. The proposal, sponsored by council member Tom Hucker (D-East County), would match the state tax on tobacco products. Washington, Utah, New Jersey and the District are also considering taxes on e-cigarettes, according to material included with Hucker’s bill. County officials did not estimate how much revenue the tax would produce.

The other measure expands the county’s definition of hotel or motel to include spare rooms or other private lodging that travelers can book through Airbnb and other online services. Such rooms would be subject to the county’s 7 percent hotel tax. Officials estimate it would yield about $230,000 a year in revenue.