Towing cons

Your car is your castle, on four wheels. You may be involved in an accident, however, or your car breaks down. Or your car is gone when you return to the parking space after shopping — it was taken away and impounded.

Towing firms are on center stage here. Most towing operators are honest and reliable, but some try to scam you for a profit at your expense. You also may have to deal with inflated or shoddy vehicle repairs, and inflated fees to retrieve your vehicle from the impound lot.

The scams can cost you money and headaches. Stay alert to the cons, and how you can stop them.

The Scams

Fight back

The Scams

Steering. You’re in a crash, and a towing firm suddenly shows up after monitoring police scans. The driver tries to convince you to have your car taken to a body shop in league with the towing firm. Steering a motorist is illegal in most states.

Patrol towing. A tow-truck driver has a spotter who sees a car parked illegally. The spotter notifies the towing driver, who swoops in and takes your car to a body shop or impound lot. The towing firm, body shop and impound lot all may try to profit from inflated and often unnecessary fees.

Inflating fees. The towing firm inflates fees far above your auto policy limits, thus forcing you to pay out of pocket.

More damage. Body shops can do substandard repairs with inexpensive knockoff parts that can be unsafe and dangerous. Repair costs also are inflated.

Impound “gate” fees. An impound lot charges a high “gate fee” or “labor fee” to release your vehicle. It’s a scam to simply have someone open the gate. You might also be charged a “release fee.” Both are illegal in most states.

Fight back

Think ahead: Join an emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. Also know your auto insurer’s roadside assistance program, with the tollfree number printed on your insurance card. They’ll set you up with reputable towing firms and repair shops.

Avoid lurkers. Never use a towing firm that just happens to show up at the scene. It might be a “bandit” monitoring police scanners for accidents.

Use your body shop. Use the body shop you want. Never let the tow truck driver choose the shop. AAA or your auto insurer will help you out.

Approval forms. Sign only the approval form authorizing a tow to a designated body shop. Avoid signing other forms.

  • Make sure the name and address on the form are the same as the signage on the tow truck.
  • Sign below the dollar amount quoted on the form, not necessarily the bottom of the document. Once you sign at the bottom, the towing firm might fill in the blanks with inflated fees and destination of a dishonest body shop.

Price list. Make sure the towing firm gives you a printed price list that includes towing and daily storage fees, plus other miscellaneous charges. You’ll also want printed documentation of where the vehicle is being towed.

Damage report. Make sure the tow-truck driver creates and signs a damage report at the accident scene. You should get a copy.

Use credit cards. Refuse to deal with a towing operator who requires cash payment only. Towing firms generally must allow credit-card payments.

Keep insurance info. Never give the towing driver your insurance information or other personal information. A dishonest towing firm or body shop might use this information to contact you and impersonate the insurance company.

Photos. Take a photo of the scene, including the tow truck. Use your cell phone or a disposable camera stored in your glove compartment.

Complain. File complaints if you’re scammed. Contact your insurer, state insurance department, local Better Business Bureau and the police.

Know your rights. State laws protect you if your vehicle is towed while you were away, such as while shopping. Confirm and complain if you suspect violations of these rules in most states:

  • The property owner or manager of a business that had your vehicle towed must be at the scene and sign the towing authorization in most states;
  • The operator must leave a small sign at the scene. It should have the firm’s name, address, phone, reason for towing, and who requested the tow;
  • Towing firms must take a photo of your vehicle in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Get the photos from the towing firm (though expect a fee); and
  • The towing operator must release your vehicle if you will not or cannot pay the requested towing free. This is true in most states, and then becomes a matter for civil courts.