Towing Scams

Dishonest tow truck operators are hauling away more than illegally parked cars in these widely-practiced towing scams

Everyone knows that most tow truck operators are decent, hard-working people. The come rescue your vehicle when its broken down or been in an accident and take it wherever you you ask them to.

Besides this valuable service, tow trucks also clear the city streets and private parking lots of illegally parked vehicles. Parking spots are becoming harder and harder to find and business owners need to have them available for customers to park in. Illegal parking can hurt the revenues of businesses if there is nowhere to park.

As you can see, towing is a legitimate business that serves the needs of the consumer. So what is driving all this talk about towing scams and “bandit” tow truck operators?

Image of car being towed away

“Bandit” tow operators are differentiated from legitimate tow operators in their practice of monitoring private parking lots in order to tow away vehicles whose owners are not patrons of the businesses associated with that lot.

Often, the tow operators dismiss the fact that the car owner does patronize a business associated with the lot before going elsewhere.

Know your rights!

If you are a victim of a “bandit” tow truck operator, remember these facts: The tow operator does not have a legal lien on your vehicle until it is in transit on a public highway.

  • If you car is already on the tow truck, but still in the parking lot, the tow operator can ask you for half of what an Official Police Garage would charge for towing.
  • If you will not or cannot pay the requested amount, the issue becomes a civil matter, and the tow operator must release your vehicle.
  • If the tow operator leaves the lot with your vehicle because you would not or could not pay the requested amount, the tow operator is in violation of California Vehicle Code 10851, which is taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent. The law may be different in your state but there are many laws in many states that protect you and your car from tow truck operators.

Here are some classic towing scams:

  1. In some scams, businesses are ripped off by con artists posing as tow truck operators. They call the business telling them that they are bringing a vehicle in for repairs or services. The scammer does whatever paperwork is required then hand the business owner or employee the keys. The business then pays the tow truck operator the towing fee thinking they will be reimbursed the money. Only there is no car being towed and the keys are just some random keys that go to who knows what.
  2. In many areas there are laws against towing companies driving around looking for parking violations so that they can tow vehicles away. The towing company gets around this by having another company do the looking for it. Sometimes the same person that owns the towing company owns the business actively looking for cars to tow. Believe it or not, this is perfectly legal in many areas. To make matters worse, these unscrupulous towing companies target low-income housing and apartment complexes.
  3. Some bandit towing operations profile vehicles for the best chance at successfully making money. They don’t want old, beat up cars because their owners are usually low-income people that might not be able to afford the impound fees. In that case the towing company might have to deal with police to have the vehicle disposed of and in the meantime if takes up valuable lot space. The also shun more expensive models like Mercedes, Porsche and BMW because the of the possibility of damage being done to the car during the tow. Reimbursement due to tow damage is rare but all the same they don’t want to run the risk of getting sued. This leaves everyone else a potential target with Toyotas and Hondas topping their favorites list.
  4. Sometimes a tow truck operator will try to insist that your vehicle be towed to “his” shop for servicing. Don’t give into this. They should be able to tow your car wherever you need it to be towed. If they won’t do it try to find someone else to tow your car where you’d like it to go.

While the towing industry is rife with fraud most tow truck operators are completely legitimate and many are working with their states to impose regulations that might limit fraud and improve the their image.

While you would think everyone would be behind such legislation considering the current state of affairs AAA Auto Club South is opposes the proposed legislation under consideration in the state of Florida. They warn that the result would in effect be a tow tax that consumers would end up paying needlessly.

Some independent towing groups are also against the legislation which they call a joke because the funding only allows for the hiring of 10 people statewide to regulate this program.

How to avoid Tow Truck Scams

  1. Know the local laws concerning towing
  2. Do not leave the property of a business you are parking at. I know this is easier said than done but if a bandit tow truck operator is watching that particular parking lot your vehicle could be hooked up and towed away in minutes.
  3. If you think you are the victim of a towing scam take the time to fill out a police report. If you just let it go not only are you out hundreds of dollars but the bandit tower can coninue to prey on people. So do your part to fight these scams and get your report filed with the police!

Bandit Tow Truck Scams

Bandit tow truck will tow anyone away from business parking lots, even legitimate customers that have every right to park there.

“Bandit” tow truck operators are differentiated from legitimate tow operators in their practice of monitoring private parking lots in order to tow away vehicles whose owners are not patrons of the businesses associated with that lot.

Often, the tow operators dismiss the fact that the car owner does patronize a business associated with the lot before going elsewhere.

Everyday, the Police Departments all over the country receive complaints from individuals who had their car towed out of a private parking lot when they “just went around the corner” for a cup of coffee or a newspaper, usually after patronizing a business associated with the parking lot.

When the individual returns to their car, it is either gone or in the process of being towed. A large fee, which grows each day the car is held in an impound lot, is attached with this significant inconvenience.

Under most state laws, property owners have the right to remove cars from their private parking lots after the car has been parked there for more than one hour. The property owner, representative, or agent must be present at the scene of impound to sign the authorization.

“Bandit” tow truck operators have interpreted this law in a way which is financially lucrative for their companies.

If you are a victim of a “bandit” tow truck operator, remember these facts: The tow truck operator does not have a legal lien on your vehicle until it is in transit on a public highway.

  • If you car is already on the tow truck, but still in the parking lot, the tow operator can ask you for half of what an Official Police Garage would charge for towing.
  • If you will not or cannot pay the requested amount, the issue becomes a civil matter, and the tow operator must release your vehicle.
  • If the tow operator leaves the lot with your vehicle because you would not or could not pay the requested amount, the tow operator is in violation of many US State codes, which is taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent.

Efforts are underway to legislatively amend Federal law to end this loophole in which “bandit” tow truck operators have been able to use to their advantage.

Who has the right to tow your vehicle?

Prior to 1995, local law enforcement had the ability to regulate towing businesses by enacting ordinances that governed their activities as to price, route and service. This was accomplished by imposing local permit requirement’s, that made it a misdemeanor offense to operate a towing business within a local municipality without a permit issued by that municipality, or to violate other regulatory provisions of the ordinance.

Each state is different and one should review the local ordinances for confirmation.

In 1995, the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAA) was enacted which effectively deregulated the motor carrier transport industry by preempting local government from imposing a permit scheme via local ordinance to regulate motor carriers, which included tow trucks.

Large motor carrier transport business were successful in lobbying for this federal law claiming they were over regulated by having to obtain a permit in each city in which they conduct business across the United States.

Most of the complaints investigated by local authorities are after the incident has occurred, when the victim’s vehicle has been towed and is stored in a tow yard for an inflated rate. Authorities must then determine through an investigation if the towing company was authorized to remove the vehicle.

Determining who authorized an impound, if anyone, and was that person a legal representative of the property owner is critical as to whether or not the codes were (Taking a vehicle without an owner’s consent) was violated.

One of the common threads in these complaints is that the victims allege their vehicle was towed away after having been parked for only 5 or 10 minutes. It is the property owner’s, or their legal representative’s, responsibility to wait one hour before having an illegally parked vehicle towed under most state statutes.

However, tow truck operators are in essence lying in wait watching the motorist walk away from their parked vehicle to a business other than the one for which the parking is designated. Several minutes after the motorist walks away from their vehicle, a tow truck is quick to tow the vehicle away.

In an effort to aggressively address this problem, some jurisdictions have conducted “sting” operations utilizing undercover police officers posing as motorists that have parked their vehicle on private property. When a tow truck arrives to remove the officer’s vehicle, the undercover officer returns and demands their car be released without charge.

If the tow truck driver refuses and takes off with the car, the tow truck driver is arrested for violation of local or state Vehicle Codes (Taking A Vehicle Without Consent).

Commission Investigation Division is increasing the frequency of these “sting” operations to send the clear message that the Los Angeles Police Department is committed to using all resources available to deter unscrupulous towing operations from engaging in this illegal activity.

Towing Scams: and companies violating the law.

Who has the right to tow your vehicle?

The worst news a motorist can get is that his or her vehicle has been towed to a storage lot that is closed on weekends and the per day storage fee is running at a rate of $30 to $50 a day. Then, when you demand to get your car that day, the storage facility charges you an extra $50 so-called “gate fee.”

The “gate fee” is to have the person who stays in a trailer on the lot walk to the gate and open it for you. Some times they call it a labor fee and then they tack on a release fee. These tactics and extra charges are illegal under most state laws.

Many of the towing companies skate on a fine line of legality. In the City of Los Angeles, California the Police Commission has jurisdiction over the towing industry if they have police permits. But the towing companies that do not have these LA Police permits can do as they please under new deregulation.

But that comes to a sudden stop when they tow cars on city streets. The police call these un-permitted tow trucks “bandit tows.” LAPD Detectives have setup “sting operations’ to catch the towing companies in the act of breaking state and city regulations and law. Not all, but many towing companies continue to break the laws.

The LA Police Commission is keeping a close eye on the “bandit” towing operators who think they can ignore city and state laws and regulations.

Here is a good example, the LA Police Commission’s Towing Section received a complaint from a San Fernando Valley resident that his car had been towed to a storage lot in the city of LA and they were over charged for towing, and they were charged a “gate fee” for someone to come to the lot and let them pay the storage fee and get their vehicle.

The LA Police Commission told the family that it was illegal to have a gate fee in the City of LA. They said it was a violation of the California Civil Vehicle Code for a towing company to charge more than the fees that the city would charge for the same towing service and storage.

(The city fee is $120) In this case the towing company charged more for the tow, more for the storage, and a gate fee than the City would charge. So the company was operating totally in violation of a civil law, but the Police Commission said they could not do anything about it because the Vehicle Code said that it had to be resolved in a civil court.

So the Police Commission sent the family a copy of the Vehicle Code and suggested they file against the towing company in Small Claims Court to get their money back. This helps the family though this legal maze, but all this does, is put the “Monkey” of enforcing the civil law on the back of the citizens.

However, this is the way your State Law-Makers kept the cops out of the system. The Valley family has to pay to file in court, pay to have the Sheriff’s Deputies serve the court documents, and then have to pay the Sheriff’s Department again to serve the court judgment if they win.

It may take the family months to get any money from the towing company and then they may not even break even in the settlement.

The LAPD says it is a violation of criminal law to tow a vehicle on city streets without the permission of the owner. And under the DMV vehicle code the owner must be given a one-hour grace period when parking on private property.

So when a McDonald’s has a car or truck towed by a “bandit” tow truck, that has been parked 25-minutes it is a violation of the DMV rules. The towing company must have an operator of the private property signed for each tow.

If the towing company already has your car on a truck or hooked up on the private property then they can ask you to pay half of the towing fee to get your vehicle back. Half the fee in LA is $46.50. If you refuse to pay then they can hold your vehicle and take you to civil court for parking it on private property.

This will take some time and they will normally win. But most tow companies will not wait to take the matter to court and they will tow your car off on city streets, which is a criminal offense. They can legally tow off private property, but then the company cannot tow on a city street without the permission of the owner.

Also the towing companies cannot charge for storage on a vehicle unless they have a lien against it. This is information coming from LAPD and the DMV.

You must also lookout for what I call the Midnight Hookers. These are tow trucks that will illegally hook-up your vehicle off parking lots and tow it to their storage lot. To do this legally they must have the property owner or the owner’s representative sign the tow slip at the time the vehicle is towed.

They cannot sign a bunch of tow slips the next morning, or sign tow slips in advance to be filled out by the driver. In some cases the tow truck driver has a kick back deal with the security guard at the business. For each tow slip he signs the security guard gets $50. This scam also happens in the middle of the day on private parking lots.

Here’s another tip: When you have a tow truck pickup your vehicle, make sure it is taken to the shop where you want it fixed. Many drivers will take your vehicle to a repair shop that pays them a commission on the job. This just means everything will cost you more. Also if you have the shop do the repairs or bodywork make sure they agree to pay for the towing charges.

My best advice is to join a towing and emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. It will be cheaper and more secure in the long run.

In summary, if you vehicle is towed, check why and what the local and state codes are. Most times you will not have been in violation and any laws.

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Harmeet Taneja
8 years ago

Disgusting business of looting people. What I experienced today. These companies have their agents watching and taking pictures of Vehicles and Owners when they leave the car and forward this information including dozens of pictures to the towing companies. Its a big Mafia Business that needs to busted as they tow away only selected vehicles as said above. They even put dents on my car

Leander Richmond
7 years ago
Reply to  Harmeet Taneja

Fight back. Hide and take video of them doing this. Then, take it to your local news agency and let them take it. But you have to bring them something solid like video proof. Park a car and set up a video camera and just let it run for a few hours. There are a lot of ways to get the video without scaring them off.

8 years ago

I got one. How bout when they purposley leave ur light on to drain ur battery then charge u $45 to charge it.

8 years ago

There has to be more done to stop this criminal activity from happening. It’s also a law that they can not tow your vehicle more than ten miles. And that pictures must be taken of your vehicles violation before they tow it and they must give you those pictures when you come in to get your stuff out of your car or get your car out of their tow yard. How many tow companies fail at this? Every one I have had the displeasure of dealing with has failed to provide me with pictures. Plus they have to post at window their policy on accepting payments. I recently had experience with “CERTIFIED TOWING” in Ontario CA where at 4:55pm they inform me that they only take exact change they do not make change. They didn’t say a word about it at 3 o’clock when I came in for registration in glove box in order to take registration to police station for a $100.00 for release that in itself is a crime since it wasn’t involved in any crime there for not in category of vehicles police holding until investigation over. It’s so maddening!!! I don’t know about you but I’m not made of money. Who’s looking out for us really? Seems like no one

7 years ago

I was towed and then couldn’t pay the storage fee to then find out they put my vehicle I. A in known junk yard to be disposed of by the time I had the money to recover my truck. They basically stole my truck and got away with it.The local city police made no effort to help me re obtain my vehicle and it just vanished tag and all.

7 years ago

This scam wouldnt exist of people would just stop parking and walking off to the nearby property.It takes a wolf to catch a wolf.Many people know its wrong to take advantage of private property where parking is limited….kinda of a scam of its own.

Why doesnt anyone mention this part?
Probably because the majority of the people on this page are stupid,apparently,if they are the ones getting towed away.

7 years ago
Reply to  tony

This isn’t referring to vehicles legitimately being towed for being illegally parked on private property. It is referring to predatory towing operations, trying to scam everyday hard working Americans out of their money by utilizing loopholes and blatantly disregarding regulations that are there for a very good reason. DON’T DEFEND THESE ANIMALS OR YOU WILL EVENTUALLY BE TARGETED BY THEM TOO!!!

Leander Richmond
7 years ago
Reply to  tony

Tony, the scam is not in the parking but in the predatory nature in which the towing is taking place. There are many laws about it all over the country in individual cities and some states. I’ll bet that if they changed the law to say that a lot must be 80 percent full befor you can tow for these purposes, then you would be out of business. If i were a politician, I’d say that IF a business had a parking lot that was open to the public and it is a shared lot like in a strip mall situation, as long as there is somewhere on the property for customers to park then you can not tow. This would be within other perimeters as well but it would stem the stupid shit. Now, as for calling tow victims ,wolves, I would LOVE to have a real “public” discussion the mentality and real motive behind your statement.

6 years ago
Reply to  tony

First of Mr. tony! You can not assume everyone on this page is stupid, that in and of itself is stupid. That was beyond rude. I myself am far from stupid and I am truly appalled that you would even feel comfortable making a statement like that.

Since we are all stupid, and in your words, are all wolves, explain to me and others I am sure, how/why a tow company would come onto said private property, or in this case an apartment complex and tow a visitor’s car from the VISITORS parking area at 11:30 PM after being in the apartments for only 4 hours, if that?

Please help a stupid, obviously illiterate person that read VISITORS on the parking space understand what makes them a wolf?

7 years ago

Who can I contact to report a tow truck company?
They are not returning my keys.
Panelbeaters already fixed the car.
Still I don’t have the keys

6 years ago

What if a car was parked in the driveway of a freind in the state MA. The vehicle had a license plate on it but was not registered. The owner of the house said they were told by the police they would be in trouble if the vehicle remained there. They told the owner of the home tto move the vehicle to the street so it would be towed. A tow company took it. Was that legal?

d j
5 years ago

Depends on state/city laws. If car is on your property, I don’t see how you could be in trouble as it is your property. But all cities are different in their codes. And yes, if you can get it to the street it can and
will be towed legally. But if car is in park, how to get it to the street? Without key, I don’t think you can put it in neutral to push into the street.

3 years ago

This kind of illegal activity should be stopped. Other towing companies will be affected by this kind of illegal activity, the trust of our good citizens is hard to obtain. For us, new towing company in the town we do our best to provide good quality service and get the best deal for it.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sam Velasquez
3 years ago

As a citizen, we need to be knowledgeable about traffic law and regulations to avoid this kind of scam. Be careful where you park your vehicle and be vigilant. Those people who illegal tow should be stopped, other towing company got stain from their illegal work.

Last edited 3 years ago by Patt Bunger