Predatory towing: The spotters who lurk in wait
By:   //  US News

A patron parks in a lot that appears to be owned by the restaurant he is visiting. He arrives at the hostess station and is informed that he has parked in the lot of the business next door. The patron immediately leaves and finds that his car is already hooked to the back of a tow truck. Unfortunately, there are no signs to indicate the parking areas border lines.

How could this happen in just a matter of minutes?

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It can and does happen every day, almost everywhere. That’s because someone is watching—someone working for a towing company who is hired to stake out parking areas looking for illegally parked cars.

The practice is known as predatory towing and it’s a problem that lawmakers have been tackling for years.

Those who sit in wait are referred to in the industry as “spotters.” The spotter will hang out at nearby a private parking lot and wait for violators. In many municipalities spotting is illegal, but it hasn’t stopped the practice. The practice has become so widespread that lawmakers are passing state laws making predatory towing illegal.

In Ohio, legislation requires that owners be allowed to remove personal property from their vehicles at no charge. It also requires truck operators to tell owners who arrive at the scene during the hook up that they can pay half a tow charge to have the vehicle released. Tow truck drivers would have to take photos to show a vehicle was in violation.

The new law helps set some statewide standards such as a tow fee of $90 specifically for removing a vehicle illegally parked on private property, and a $12 a day fee for storage once a vehicle is towed, according to AAA Ohio Auto Club.

Predatory towing is more prevalent in larger cities and complaints are plentiful. The Washington, DC area is one that’s high on the complaint list.

Although Maryland has a predatory towing law, Virginia does not, making the capital area a windfall for predatory towing companies.

New Jersey not only has a law; the state cracks down on those who violate it. This summer six towing companies located in Essex and Monmouth counties that were charged with illegally removing cars, hitting motorists with high fees and other violations of the state’s predatory towing prevention law have agreed to collectively pay $55,000 in fines under settlements announced Wednesday by acting Attorney General John Hoffman.

The predatory towing prevention act, signed into law in 2009, prohibits towing companies from charging rates deemed excessive by the state, “trolling” for cars without the property owners’ consent, failing to maintain records and an impound lot, and removing cars from areas that lack signs clearly stating the area is a tow-away zone.

For those who have had vehicles towed from an area with no predatory towing law, the fees for redemption can be as high as $2,000 and that may not include daily storage fees.

The best measure to prevent vehicle towing is to watch for and obey parking signs.


Image: Flickr/Jon Hoff

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