Know your towing rights: How to properly handle towing situations

Robert DiGiacomo

It's stressful enough to be involved in a car crash, but imagine having to deal with an aggressive tow truck operator who may be taking advantage of you by overcharging for towing and storage.

Such is the unfortunate reality for many consumers and their insurers, who are footing an annual bill of $570 million for excessive vehicle towing and storage fees, according to a 2012 report from the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group.

“If action is not taken to end these abusive practices, costs can be expected to continue to grow, resulting in higher out-of-pocket expenses for owners and increasing insured loss costs that may translate into higher premiums for policyholders,” the report warns. 

Under the worst-case scenarios, aggressive towing companies monitor police radios, show up at accident scenes without being called, and then tow vehicles to undisclosed locations, where owners can rack up daily storage charges of $100, according to Bob Passmore, senior director of personal lines policy at the insurers association.

In these extreme situations, a vehicle is essentially “held hostage” by towers, who try to force the owner to agree to a menu of services before moving it, Passmore says.

“They won't tow the vehicle unless you pre-authorize four days of storage, or will tow it to a body shop, and you have to pre-authorize repairs,” Passmore says. “Once you get it there, you have to pay for the charges in cash.”

Consumers in 2010 paid an average of $228 for towing costs and $185 for storage fees per accident claim, for a total cost of about $4.5 billion a year, Passmore’s group says.

However, charges by crafty towing companies can exceed $1,000 for a tow of less than three miles – including such charges as a $200 fee for street cleanup, $200 for winching and $75 an hour for the truck, according to the report.

Towing regulations vary by state and mostly address so-called “non-consent” tows, such as when your vehicle is illegally parked and moved by parking cops.

The report calls for the “effective regulation” of towing practices at accident scenes to ensure tow truck operators are:

• Being more upfront with customers.

• Acting reasonably to release vehicles to their owners.

• Charging fair rates for towing and storage. 

Ryan Davids, vice president of business development at United Road Towing, which calls itself the country’s largest towing company, says his industry consists mostly of “hard-working, honest professionals,” but “a few rogue towers” are giving it a bad name by persuading drivers to agree to tows at the scene. 

“If it's not illegal, it's definitely immoral,” Davids says. “They're the ones making it harder for everyone else.”

The cities with the greatest number of reported “aggressive towing practices” are Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta and Houston, the insurance association found. The states under that umbrella are Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California.

United Road operates under a set of “best practices” that include training tow truck drivers on how to resolve disputes with the public and providing a process for consumers to file complaints, according to Davids.

“No one wants to be towed,” Davids says. “It is our job to make the best out of an inconvenient situation.”

To avoid being a victim of an aggressive tow truck driver, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and the National Insurance Crime Bureau recommend:

• Reviewing your insurance policy's towing coverage each year. 

• Keeping the contact information for your insurer and auto club in your wallet or glove box.

• Not sharing insurance or financial information about your vehicle with a tow truck driver. 

• Calling the police if you think a tow truck driver is shady. 

• Finding out upfront what the towing and storage charges will be.

• Getting in writing the location where your vehicle will be towed.

• Requesting an itemized bill for towing and storage charges.

• Not accepting charges for storage on weekends or other days when the storage lot is not open.

All the while, it's important to keep your personal safety in mind, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says. If a tow truck driver responds to your questions by getting agitated, it's best to back off and let your insurance company sort out the situation. 

An easy rule to follow from the bureau is that “a legitimate tow operator will satisfy your concerns; an illegitimate one will not.”

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