We all have a love-hate relationship with tow trucks. When your car breaks down along the side of the road, that tow truck is a welcome sight. But when you park in the wrong place and your car gets towed, it’s an expensive and time-consuming ordeal to get it back.

Mistakes happen, but “predatory towing,” where towing companies pay kickbacks to private businesses or law enforcement, is banned in only 17 states, and is creating needless problems for drivers, according to a new report from the consumer advocates at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

Listen to audio highlights of the story below:

“Banning kickbacks should be a no-brainer,” said Teresa Murray, U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog and co-author of the report. “Kickbacks give people incentives to get vehicles that aren’t breaking any rules towed. Why would we incentivize that?”

U.S. PIRG does not question the right of property owners to have vehicles towed when they are improperly parked. But a bounty system, where towing companies are allowed to patrol a parking lot in return for paying the property owner or one of their agents a fee for each vehicle removed, “opens a door to potential malpractice that does not need to be opened,” the report said.

If a state does not require a photo before a vehicle is towed—only Maryland, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon do—and there’s no ban on kickbacks, that “opens the door to incentivizing tows even when they are illegal,” the PIRG report noted. “Business owners could see it as easy money if they believe they won’t be caught.”  

According to U.S. PIRG’s survey only these 17 states currently ban kickbacks for tows from private property: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington. Some local jurisdictions may have their own prohibitions.

You don’t have to be improperly parked to have your vehicle towed off private property for reasons that seem, at the very least, questionable.

Some landlords and condo associations have clauses in their contracts that allow them to remove vehicles that are inoperable or that detract from the look of the property. These clauses make it possible for tow truck drivers who cruise those parking lots to remove a car or truck with a flat tire (or one that’s low on air), a cracked windshield, missing license plate, or expired registration.

You could be parked in your assigned space, and still have your car towed for one of these reasons. If the tow company doesn’t notify you right away—in some states, they have 15 to 30 days to mail you a notice—you could assume your car was stolen. By the time you locate it, the towing and storage charges could be hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.

Murray told Checkbook she’s received complaints from people who say this happened to them or their neighbors—vehicles towed out of their assigned parking spaces for some cosmetic reason. These “horror stories” often happen to people in lower-income neighborhoods, senior citizen apartment complexes, or college housing, she said.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” Murray said. “These property owners are making up their own rules. You have people who are not posing any problem to anybody who are getting towed, and it’s wrong.”

Checkbook asked The Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA), an industry trade group, about the U.S. PIRG report. Cynthia Martineau, TRAA’s executive director, called the study “inaccurate and misleading.”

Most towing companies are “honest and law-abiding members of their community,” she said, and the association “does not condone illegal or unscrupulous practices, including so-called ‘predatory towing.’ Private property towing is often only a small segment of a towing company’s operations,” Martineau told us, “and the practice of paying ‘kickbacks’ in exchange for work is not a widespread problem.”

U.S. PIRG wants more regulation by state and local governments to prevent the bad apples in the industry from preying on people, by requiring tow companies to do the following:

  • Post their prices, both tow fees and storage rates.
  • Accept credit cards or payments other than cash.
  • Document the reason for a tow with a photo.
  • Notify the owner about the tow within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Allow the owner to get valuables out of their vehicle (such as a laptop or medication) if they can’t pay the bill.

More info: U.S. PIRG has a tip sheet on what to do if your vehicle is towed and what limited rights you have should you fall victim to a predatory tow. It also has a new search tool that provides information about each state’s consumer protection laws for towing.

 

 

Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for NW Newsradio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.