Most of us have done it – parked in a spot so we could run into the store just for a minute, or dropped something off at a family member’s house, thinking we’d be back to the car quickly. Or in a hurry to make an appointment, we parked where we thought it was legal.
But those moments of distraction can be expensive, inconvenient and time-consuming when your car is towed, and in addition to having to find a ride to the lot, often far away, you must come up with a cash payment.
While most tow companies are honest and principled businesses, there are some who prey on unsuspecting people, such as immigrants, the elderly, people who do not speak English as their first language or do not read and write fluently in English. Those predatory companies are sometimes called “bandit” operators.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, reported cases of inflated towing or storage bills increased by 92 percent during the first half of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. They have continued to rise in subsequent years.
Some of the ways that dishonest towing companies can take advantage of you:
There are scams where property owners post “no parking” signs in their lots, often in hard to see locations, and pay a towing company to watch the lot. “Bandit” operators can remove a car in as few as five or 10 minutes.
Towing companies will sometimes monitor police frequencies for car accidents. The tow truck will then tow the car to a body shop that gives the insurance company an inflated quote and kicks-back money to the tow operator.
Tow operators will put cars up on the truck or lift and ask for outrageous amounts of money, often in cash, to release them.
There are operators who drive around looking for parking violators so they can tow the cars. In some cases, there are “lookouts” who notify the towing company of violators.
Dishonest operators will tow a vehicle, and hold it in storage until the motorist pays fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Scammers can get your insurance information, and use it to file false claims.
In addition, there have been instances locally reported of dubious operators hooking up a vehicle they claim has been illegally parked and demanding fees of several hundred dollars to release it.
We always write about ways in which you can become a smarter consumer, how to learn to protect yourself and family and friends from scams and frauds. This is especially important with towing companies, because you are dealing directly with a person who is taking what could be your only means of transportation. And it can be frightening to have someone with that kind of power threatening you. If you ever feel threatened in a towing disagreement, please call the police. Often a dishonest towing company will just assume that you do not know the rules. If you do know the rules, they will usually back down.
Follow these tips to ensure that you won’t become a victim:
Make sure the tow truck driver creates and signs a damage report on the scene before the car goes anywhere.
When you sign a towing estimate after an accident, make sure that you sign directly under the list of itemized charges. This will prevent towing companies from adding more charges later.
Do not sign any additional forms; do not give them personal or insurance information.
Ask for the price of the tow and any storage fees up front, get it in writing and obtain a copy of any paperwork from the tow truck driver.
When parking in a private lot, don’t leave the premises since “bandit” towing companies frequently use lookouts to monitor lots. A tow truck could be there in just minutes to tow your car away.
If you suspect fraud or if the tow truck driver refuses to leave, call the police.
If you think you are the victim of a towing scam, take the time to fill out a police report. If you don’t, not only could you lose hundreds of dollars but the “bandit” towing company will also continue to prey on people. So do your part to fight these scams and get your report filed with the police, the Department of Consumer Protection, the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
If you’re not already a member of an emergency roadside assistance program, consider joining. AAA is the best known, but some cell phone providers offer roadside assistance, as do some insurance companies. Just do your research!
Where to go for more information:
To file a complaint with DMV:
or call 800.842.8222
Link to maximum towing charges allowed by CT DMV:
Link to allowable storage rates:
File a complaint with DCP:
Better Business Bureau:
This article was written by Catherine Blinder, chief education and outreach officer of the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.