Protecting yourself from predatory towing

Monday, December 17, 2007

 

From Consumer Connection, a publication of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

Tow truck drivers risk their lives every day to assist stranded motorists and keep the roadways clear of disabled vehicles. Until recently, however, a lack of Federal and State laws allowed the ranks of the profession to be infiltrated by unscrupulous drivers who practice predatory towing.

The worst cases of predatory towing involve “patrol” or “satellite” towing. That’s when a tow truck driver, on a tip from a spotter, tows away a car illegally parked on private property, such as a no-parking area of a shopping mall or apartment complex. If that happens, the car owner has to pay the cost of towing, storage, and other fees to get the car back.

A new law, Assembly Bill 2210 (Goldberg, Chapter 609, Statutes of 2006) protects consumers against the worst of illegal towing. Under AB 2210, if you spot a tow truck driver taking your car, and the tow truck is still on private property, the driver must release your car to you unconditionally.

A tow truck operator who violates this law is subject to a civil misdemeanor, a fine of $2,500, and/or three months in jail. Also, consumers who can prove they have been charged illegal or excessive towing or storage fees are entitled to recover four times the amount of those fees in small claims court.

Below is a summary of the changes to the law under AB 2210. Remember these guidelines apply only to tows from private property.

Consumers Towing Rights Advisory

1. One-Hour Rule A vehicle must be parked for one full hour before being towed unless it is parked in a manner that interferes with an entrance or exit, is within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, or in a fire lane. The curb of a fire lane must be painted red and be clearly labeled “No Parking Fire Lane.”

2. Unconditional Release If a vehicle owner encounters a tower removing his or her vehicle but the truck is not yet on a public road, the owner may demand the immediate and unconditional release of the vehicle. The law does not require the owner to provide a driver’s license.

3. Reasonable Release Fee If the tower releases a vehicle that has been illegally parked, the tower is entitled to no more than one-half his normal towing fee. Local law enforcement can tell you what the normal towing fee is for your area.

4. Ten-Mile Limit A tower cannot take your vehicle to a storage lot that is more than ten miles from where it was parked.

5. Clearly Posted Warning A tower must have written consent from the property owner or his agent, who must have waited one hour before calling for the tow. Also, a sign not less than 17 inches by 22 inches in size should be displayed in plain view at all entrances to the property.

It should prohibit public parking and indicate that vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and post the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency and the name and telephone number of each towing company that is a party to a written general towing authorization agreement with the property owner.

6. Valid Towing Permit (photos, records, no kick-backs) The tower must have a valid motor carrier permit, shall make records and photographs of each tow available for law enforcement, and shall not share profits from towing with property owners who call for a vehicle removal.

7. Credit Cards OK The tower must accept credit cards in payment for towing and storage fees, which must be reasonable.

8. Compliance Within 24 Hours = One Day Maximum Storage Charge If the appropriate fees are paid within the initial 24 hours of storage and the storage facility fails to comply or is not open during normal business hours, then only one day’s storage fee may be charged.

9. Reasonable Gate Fee The gate fee, or maximum hourly charge for releasing a vehicle after normal business hours, shall be one half the hourly tow rate charged for initially towing the vehicle, or less.

10. Penalty for Excessive Charges A person who charges a vehicle owner a towing service or storage charge at an excessive rate is liable to the vehicle owner for four times the amount charged.

If you have a complaint about a local towing company, you should contact your local law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau. You may also check the driver’s reposessor’s license on DCA’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services’ or by calling (800) 952-5210. Civil claims against a tower should be filed in the Small Claims Court. The Department of Consumer Affairs also publishes a Guide to Using the Small Claims Court.

 

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