Beware of Car Towing Companies That Patrol Private Parking Lots

Maybe you’ve had that sinking feeling of returning to where you thought you had parked your car, only to find an empty spot.

Did you forget where you had parked it? Maybe. Was it stolen? Perhaps. But in many cases, your car has been towed — and it’ll cost you to get it back.

If it was towed, you might have overlooked a “no parking” sign, or were blocking a loading zone or simply misunderstood whether a spot was available for public parking. It’s frustrating and inconvenient, but the tow isn’t without cause.

In other cases, the circumstances are murkier. In some places, private businesses contract with towing companies to patrol parking lots at shopping centers and apartment complexes and remove improperly parked cars. While this seems reasonable on the surface — businesses want to make sure parking spaces are available for their customers — it can become a costly game in which towing companies patrol lots looking for any reason, however slight, to tow cars and earn fees.

Depending on where you live, you may not be able to retrieve items you left in the car until you pay the towing fee — which averages $165 plus storage costs of about $28 a day, in the roughly two dozen states that set maximum fees, according to the author of a new report on “nonconsensual” towing from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” said Grace Brombach, the fund’s consumer watchdog associate and the author of the report. But it’s likely to intensify, she said, as the coronavirus pandemic begins to abate and more Americans, increasingly vaccinated, get behind the wheel again. “People will be traveling more often, after being cooped up,” she said.

This sort of towing differs from a tow you request when your car breaks down or is disabled after an accident. In that case, you initiated the service, and your auto insurance carrier might even pay for it.

Towing contracts often don’t require the businesses to pay anything to the towing companies, said Eric Friedman, director of the office of consumer protection in Montgomery County, Md. Instead, he said, the contracts allow the towing company to keep all fees earned from towing, creating an incentive for it to be aggressive.

In some cases, towing companies pay “spotters” — people who watch the lot and call the company if a motorist is away from the car for even a few minutes beyond the posted time limit. “It’s like a bounty system,” Mr. Friedman said. “It really has nothing to do with parking.”

Typically, cars are towed to storage lots that may be far from where the car was parked.

Several years ago, Mr. Friedman said, predatory towing was rampant in Montgomery County, just outside Washington. “It was one of the No. 1 complaints we were receiving,” he said. “People think their car is stolen and call the police.”

The county adopted regulations that helped to curb the problem, he said, but the practice was also significantly reduced by a class-action settlement in 2018 against an area towing company.

In June, the Virginia attorney general sued a towing company in Arlington, accusing it of violating state and local laws by engaging in towing conduct that was “frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal,” and that caused “financial harm” to consumers.

The suit, filed in Arlington County Circuit Court, claimed that the company, Advanced Towing, illegally towed vehicles including food delivery cars like those working for DoorDash and Uber Eats; Amazon delivery vans; and, on at least two occasions, even police vehicles. A trial is scheduled in October.

In an interview, John O’Neill, the owner of Advanced Towing, disputed the allegations in the suit. “It’s such a witch hunt,” he said.

Drivers seeking to avoid paying for parking at a mall will often use free parking in a nearby retail lot, Mr. O’Neill said. “To avoid paying, they choose to park illegally” and are subject to towing, he said.

He added that the retail lots were clearly marked with signs indicating that the spaces were for customers only.

Regarding the suit’s claim that his company towed two police cars, Mr. O’Neill said the vehicles hadn’t been marked as police cars and had been properly towed.

Sometimes it is governments that are accused of improper towing. The City of Chicago is the subject of a class-action lawsuit claiming that it towed and disposed of cars deemed to be abandoned without properly notifying owners — including a wheelchair-accessible van owned by a woman with multiple sclerosis.

The Chicago Department of Law said in an emailed statement that the case concerns “unregistered vehicles with expired license plates that are abandoned on city streets,” and that the city “provides ample notice concerning the towing of these vehicles.” Nevertheless, last summer the city passed an impoundment reform ordinance and is “committed to a broader effort to reform processes around fines and fees.”

The city said it is “vigorously defending” itself against the claims in the suit, and noted that an appeals court has agreed to review the suit’s certification as a class action.

The PIRG report found that consumer towing protections in most states were “weak, nebulous or nonexistent.”

Only about half the states set maximum fees for towing or storage of cars towed without the driver’s consent. And just 14 states require towing companies to display towing rates, either on a sign at the parking lot or at their storage facility. A handful of states offer extra protections, like requiring a photo of an improperly parked vehicle before it’s towed, or banning trucks from patrolling streets and parking lots looking for cars to tow.

Sometimes cities and towns have stricter rules than states do. But in many areas, there’s little consumers can do but pay the fee — and complain about it afterward.

“It’s up to the consumer to advocate for themselves,” Ms. Brombach, the author of the towing report, said. Most states have consumer protection offices that can be a good first stop with a complaint.

It helps to be aware of the possibility of a tow when parking. People assume that a lot near a store or other business is public, Mr. Friedman said, but it’s usually private property — so act accordingly. “It’s a mind-set consumers have to have,” he said.

Scrutinize any signs on the lot that provide information about parking and any restrictions, he advised, and resist the urge to park and run errands at additional locations if the spot is dedicated to a specific store. If you have any doubt, find another spot. It may help to take a picture of your car, noting the time and any relevant signs with your phone, in case it can be used to challenge a towing fee, he said.

Here are some questions and answers about towing fees:

What should I do if my car is towed?

If a phone number is posted in the parking lot, call it. Otherwise, call the nonemergency number of the local police department. In many places, local rules require towing companies to report a vehicle to the police before hauling it away.

There’s typically little you can do to get back your car until you pay the fee. “It’s a highly unusual transaction from the get-go,” Mr. Friedman said, in that you have to pay the money and challenge the fee afterward.

Ask for an itemized bill when you retrieve your car. “Fees can stack up,” Ms. Brombach said. You may be charged a “release” fee, and an “after hours” fee, and you’ll want to be sure you weren’t overcharged.

If you can prove that your car was illegally towed, you are eligible for reimbursement in 27 states, the report notes. In 17 of those states, you are entitled to collect damages as well as reimbursement.

What if I return to my car while it is in the process of being towed?

In 18 states, tow truck drivers must release your car at no charge or for a smaller “drop fee,” if you return to your car before it has been removed from the lot. In some areas, however, you may have no recourse but to visit the storage lot.

What if I left medication or important items, like a laptop, in my car when it was towed?

In 20 states, the towing storage facility must grant you access to all personal items in your car, even if you can’t pay to get your car back right away. Nine more states allow retrieval of emergency items, like a wallet or medication.

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