Saturday, January 27, 2007

Avel Gordly Busts on Tow Co's, Airs Horrifying Horror Stories

This is strictly an urban issue, but for them it's a big one: what's now being called predatory or patrol towing, or sometimes just trolling--where the truck driver drives around, often at night, checking in at contract lots and jacking the car with or without an owner's request, for "violations" like tag expiry other than improper parking.

Sen Avel Gordly, the legislature's sole independent, naturally has no one to represent but the people and has taken on the cause with a vengeance. She has scheduled a public hearing on towing issues January 31st at 3pm in Room B of the Capitol in Salem. This could be a fun/appalling one for legislature junkies (and I know you're out there). The number of stories that have poured into Senator Gordly's office are a collective diary of chicanery, extortion, and nearly outright theft or carnapping in the least. Forgive the length, but some of these stories are just amazing, and they're being entered into the record--so consider this a post with a long appendix. :)

Dear Senator Gordly, I read Steve Duin's column this morning. As you probably know, it is not just the towing shenanigans and overcharges but also the outrageous "storage" charges. I have heard that some lots charge a special moving fee if they have to move your car while it is stored if they do not have the key. The storage costs have nothing to do with actual costs. And it is not just a Portland problem. There was a recent towing case involving Woodburn in federal court. I think that Woodburn had a little profit center going. They also may charge a "drop charge" if you get back to the car after they have lifted it up. And the city charges a big storage and towing fee if the police tow your car, which can have a huge impact on poor people who cannot afford to get their car out of hock and end up losing the car. Go get "em, Senator! Thank you. --GB
I enthusiastically support your effort to control the towing industry as reported by Steve Duin. I have never had a car towed, but am aware of their practices. I regard the towing companies as pirates. They apparently have license to prowl and capture cars for ransom. This must be stopped. I don't think that a tow truck driver looking for a fee is in a good moral position to judge whether a car needs to be towed. Cars should never be towed except by the explicit request of a property owner or police officer. Even then, a towing fee acts like a non-judicially imposed fine and there should be a readily available means for the car owner to contest the fee. Thank you for your work, T.O.
Hello, I live within your district in Se Portland. I wanted to thank you for working to provide some limits on the auto towing business in Portland. I had my Sergeant's towing experience about four years ago. My car refused to start in a restaurant parking lot in inner Se. I went inside the restaurant and got permission to leave it.

I returned a couple of hours later and Sergeants had towed it away. The company wasn't interested in hearing that I had gotten permission to leave it. They were arrogant, rude, and dismissive on the telephone. They were unswayed by the business confirming that I had asked and received an okay to park in the lot. They were unwilling to negotiate a smaller ransom, given that I had done nothing wrong. This was a couple of weeks before Christmas, and had a definite impact on our gifts for our kids. The reality- we felt as if someone had stolen our car, and we had to pay to get it back. It didn't really matter that it was a towing company, or the gypsy joker outlaw motorcycle gang. They did us wrong.

By the way, I have lived in Se Portland for a couple of decades. I have had cars stolen a couple of times. I have paid towing and storage fees to get my cars back on these occasions. I've never been absolutely thrilled at having to pay, but I understood that the company provided a service, and I was responsible for paying. The Sergeant experience totally eliminated the middle man. They took my car, I paid them to get it back. --RS
Thanks for the update on Sen. Gordly's other legislative initiatives. I also want to thank you and Sen. Gordly for your introduction of the bill outlawing predatory towing. I'd like to describe a situation that happened to a couple of friends of mine as an example of what you are trying to do away with.

Pete is a cancer survivor who has one leg and uses a prosthesis. He and his girlfriend Julie live in an apartment complex in West Linn that has a towing contract with one of these vulture companies. Pete parked in a handicapped parking spot, and his handicap tag fell off the dashboard where he normally puts it (although it was still visible to anyone who would have taken the trouble to look down through the windshield.) The car was towed that night, even though Pete was entitled to use the handicap parking spot, he had a current tag, he was a tenant with a lease at the property, and the onsite property manager was aware of his disability and familiar with his vehicle. The fee they paid to recover put a significant dent in their Thanksgiving festivities. Only because of pressure put on the towing company by the property manager were they able to recover a refund shortly before Christmas.

Of course, if the property manager or the property owner had been required to approve of the tow, my friends would not have been subjected to this at all. I think few people object to owner-complaint driven tows. Unilateral decisions by lowest-common-denominator tow truck drivers working on commission are another story.

As always, thank you for the good work Sen. Gordly and you do for your own district and for all of us. Kathy Figley, Mayor, City of Woodburn
Dear Senator Gordly, I am a resident of Portland but not in your district, however I strongly support your efforts to moderate the predatory tactics and exorbitant charges towing companies levy against the citizens of Oregon.

I recently had a very painful and humiliating experience with Retriever Towing in Portland. It cost me $278 to recover my vehicle within one hour of it being towed for several questionable charges. I was threatened and humiliated when I asked questions about the charges. The passage of your bills would provide additional consumer protection in a sector that thrives on predatory tactics with little oversight except through the legal venue which is burdensome to say the least for the general public. I would be willing to share my experience and/or testify in support of your bills --Mort A.
Go get it, Senator! Portland has a racket going too, not just the tow companies. I parked in an area of Old Town for dinner and returned to find my car apparently stolen! (It was not in a tow area). When I called the police, they said it had been towed. I retrieved the car at my cost and returned to the area it had been parked. There were NO signs saying I should not have parked there. Yet the city had ticketed me, and the car had been towed. I believe the city should post adequate signage before being able to ticket and tow. I took pictures of the street to show the lack of signs, but the court didn't care. More money for them. As far as I know, they're still running this trap on unsuspecting citizens -- a double whammy for both the city and the tow companies! (PS: I still have the photos). I do wonder if perhaps the tow drivers might even be so low as to remove such signs to increase their haul. That was the first and last time I'd been towed. It's a travesty! --jim d.
Senator Gordly, I wanted to share my own horror story with Pro Tow in Beaverton.

After I got out of the Marine Corps in 2001, I bought my dream car, a 1972 GTO. Within a month of buying the car, I was driving it on HWY 26, when the engine started knocking, and smoke started coming from under the hood. I called AAA, and they sent Pro Tow to my rescue. When the wrecker arrived, I asked them to tow it back to my house for me, but they insisted I have it towed to their shop, so they could give me a "free estimate". Having no prior experience with towing companies, I naively agreed to their offer.

After completing their diagnosis, they told me that I needed a new timing chain, and told me that it would cost about $400 to replace it. I told them that I could not afford the amount, and asked them to tow the car back to my house. They then told me that it was going to cost me well over the $400 to have them tow it back for me. The reason, they said, was that the estimate was only free, if I had them do the work for me, otherwise it was $200, on top of that, there was a "dolly fee" and an astronomical (I don't remember the exact amount) price per mile. The total would have been the same as if I had just gotten the work done. I was very unhappy with the situation, but I agreed to let them do the work, based on my limited options. I also told them that I could not afford anything over the $400 they quoted me.

A couple of days later, they called me back with more bad news. They told me that they had taken everything apart and had replaced the timing chain, but found out that it was not the problem after all. They then said that the cost to have them tow my car back to me would greatly exceed the $400 originally quoted for a fixed car. The reason being that, on top of the "dolly fee" and astronomical towing price, there were parts and labor fees. They wanted me to not only pay for labor on a car they didn't fix, but also for a timing chain and gaskets that I never needed in the first place. I had no way to pay what they were asking, and they were far beyond reasonable, and refused to admit any fault.

Having been backed completely into a corner, I did what I should have done in the first place, which was to call AAA and report the incident. AAA eventually got them to agree to give my car back to me for $460. When I got the car back, it was in pieces. I used money from my GI Bill to pay the bill, and the car never ran again as long as I owned it.

Since then I have heard numerous other stories about Pro Tow, and even talked to a dispatcher for the company, who said that death threats were a part of daily business.

The towing industry is one that has completely refused to regulate itself, and can be described in no other way, then organized crime. Anything the legislature does to regulate the industry is completely warranted. Thank you for your support on this issue.

--Peter S.
Hi Avel! I had an older Toyota pickup stolen from the Gateway parking lot. I reported it. It was abandoned in a Fred Meyer parking lot. By the time I received notice from the towing company, I owed close to $1,000 in towing and storage costs--I paid $500 for truck so I let them keep it. This was four years ago. All I can say is, "You go girl!!!" Take care. Jodi
Senator Gordly, I am not in your district, but I do appreciate you looking into a situation that has gotten completely out of control with the City of Portland’s blessing.

I say gotten out of control as I used to own a towing company in the Beaverton area. We certainly towed our share of illegally parked vehicles, accident vehicles and arrested driver vehicles. And let me just say, the towing business is a thankless business. Nobody gets up on a sunny morning and says, “My god what a beautiful day, I think I’ll have my car towed.” It’s no wonder there are a lot of lowlives in the business.

When we towed cars, we made certain that the area was clearly marked and the authorized property manager or owner called us to request the tow every time. Nobody had spies or patrolled the area. We charged $5.00 hook-up and a buck a mile and $5.00 a day for storage. Of course that was many years ago, but even then is was reasonable. If an owner came up while we were impounding their car, we would drop it for $10.00, even in the 70’s a small price to pay for clearly parking where they shouldn’t.

Back then the courts sided with the car owners. Now the city of Portland gets kickbacks and charges towing companies association fees and a number of other fees and even a percentage on police requested calls! They have figured out that towing companies are a cash cow and are doing everything they can to promote “gray” towing.

About 6 months ago, my wife had a Safeguard Towing tow truck back up to her car. She is a real Estate Broker. She was parked in a private subdivision of townhouses showing a property where parking was extremely limited. She took the time to find a spot that did not have any parking regulatory signs. This tow driver had been patrolling and figured he could grab the car and go. My wife saw him backing to her car and ran out of the home she was showing and told the guy to leave her car alone. He didn’t even have a hook on it. He told her it would cost her $105.00 to get him to move. Thinking she had no choice, she paid him and he drove off.

In Washington County where this happened, there are statutes that govern proper signage and what constitutes possession of a vehicle. I talked to witnesses that said the driver did not have any apparatus attached to the vehicle when my wife went out, therefore he didn’t have possession. Without possession you cannot charge anything legally. Also, improper signage is a big deal. If signs are placed so they can’t be read by traffic going a particular direction, they are ineffective therefore a car parking in an area where from the direction he entered the area he wouldn’t have seen the signs, according to the statutes is not parked illegally.

I went and video taped the area and called Safeguard Towing and talked with the owner. I told him I had witnesses that saw that the driver didn’t have possession of the car and that the neighborhood had improper signage. I also told him that I build Web Sites for a living and I’d be more than happy to build one and post my videotape and dedicate the site to Safeguard Towing and Predatory Towing Companies everywhere. I even emailed him a sample of what it would look like.

I got the $105.00 back! These guys are making a killing off their predatory practices and it needs to stop. ----Greg
Dear Senator Gordly, I support this bill completely. It would be great if these companies were investigated and forced to repay either the victims or the city for years of abusing drivers in the state of Oregon.

In one instance that I was a witness to, Retriever towing towed and entire parkng lot of patrons who had permission to use the lot as an overflow, as the restuarant in question was not even in business at the time. One person had a dog in the car , and the driver would not drop the vehicle without $100 in cash first. 5 cars were towed that night before my friends were able to rescue their vehicles.

Another time I had a vehicle impounded by the police down town. They gave me the option of having a friend come and tow the vehicle, a golf cart, home for me. They gave me 5 minutes to call for a ride, then seized my vehicle.

The company vandalized my vehicle, stole from me, and tried to charge me for over 3 days, when I tried to pick it up a few HOURS later. The lot attendent couldn't decide what to do with the situation as there are no specific laws of roving ownership on a vehicle without a vin number, registration, and that is not insurable. It cost me over $300 for theft, damage, and harassment. sincerely, Angela
I fully support your efforts. I have had some terrible experiences with towing companies and with the city. In fact, I purchased a cover for one of my cars (which is in fine working condition and has been parked in front of my house) and received three green stickers threatening to tow my car. When I explained to the city that my car is operational and has a leak along one of the windows, they told me to take the cover off or they'd tow my car. Meanwhile, there are two cars on our street that have not moved in over 8 months. Cheers, Brad
I'd like to add this story to your list of trolling tow-trucks even though it occurred in Eugene and not in Portland.

Our student daughter parked her car in the gravel lot in the alley behind her apartment at about 11:45 at night last July. Her car was towed about an hour later in the wee hours of the morning. She had to take a taxi ($30) to get to the lot, then paid $160 plus ATM fees (they only take cash) to be able to get her car home. She tried to explain to the company that they had towed the car by mistake since her lot was gravel and had signs with the property manager's name posted. She even took a picture of the skid marks that were left in the gravel to prove it. She told them she had 3 other people in the car with her that witnessed where she parked that night. And she explained that her landlord doesn't require a permit to be displayed in the summer when parking is not a problem. The towing company just said that she was wrong and to call their lawyer because they were done talking to her! Her boyfriend called and tried to explain, her father called and tried to reason with them, then I called and started asking questions. They paid absolutely no attention to any of us, then gave us the lawyer's name and hung up.

Well it turns out that the adjacent landlord with paved parking has a 24-hour prowl contract that allows any car without a permit to be pulled from their side of the alley at any time, night or day, without warning. When I called the towing company I asked them which side of the alley they towed from. The driver didn't know which side but he let it drop that the car was towed from gravel. (So I'll give the driver the benefit of the doubt and say he was probably new and thought the gravel lot was tow-able.) But even after that admission the towing company didn't budge. At our urging, our daughter filed a complaint in small claims court which only made the towing company madder. Their lawyer sent a sleazy, threatening, menacing letter to her saying they would counter-sue if she didn't retract her false and malicious claim immediately. The towing company backed down in court when they saw that all the witnesses showed up, pictures of the skid marks were printed, a transcript of what the driver said was printed out, the landlord's affidavit about summer parking was presented, and a diagram of the alley was drawn. My daughter got her $160 and court fees back but not the cab fare, ATM fees, court-house parking fees, gas money, and time.

This is not how citizens should be treated 'by license'. The towing company acted irresponsibly for not knowing which lot was which. Towing cars at 1:00 am from a dark, half-empty alley when school's out, and there's plenty of open parking, is pretty low. And after this incident I sincerely believe the towing company in Eugene takes advantage of students and poor people who don't have the time, money or skills to fight back. --Jan N, Corvallis
I am writing in regards to the incident (my car being towed) that occurred on the morning of Sunday, June 5, 2005. I had an appointment with a realtor to present an offer for the sale of a property. I parked in the front lot at approximately 10:10a.m. and realizing that I was early, decided to walk across the street to Cameo Cafe to get a cup of coffee. There must have been no more than a total of ten vehicles parked in that entire front lot. I noticed a man looking rather suspicious (who turns out to be your “private parking auditor”) walking right in front of the Ace Hardware store. There was a line at The Cameo, so I was there maybe 15-20 minutes. When I returned to the parking lot to retrieve my folder to proceed to the meeting, my car was gone. By then, there was a parking attendant in a neon vest directing traffic. I asked him and was informed that my car must have been towed by Retriever Towing at 15th & Quimby. She told me that this was a constant occurrence, and has caused major inconveniences for them.

We arrived at Retriever Towing only to be told that I had violated the rules in parking at that shopping center. The realtor from Hasson confirmed to them that I was in fact meeting at their office. I could not understand 1) why they had towed my vehicle even though I was conducting business with one of their tenants; and 2) how on earth were they able to be called, drove over to the parking lot, hitched up my car within 12 minutes of when I left my car. I almost felt like being stalked and watched. At one point during our discussion with Retriever, one of their people even said "that's just not right". However, I had no choice but to pay for my vehicle.

When I returned to Uptown Shopping Center for my appointment, the parking attendant in the neon vest confirmed that the suspicious guy I saw was the one who call in all the tows. He was busy taking photos of vehicles parked at the lot and subsequently I have been told not to be surprised if he actually took a photo of me (without my permission) walking away from my vehicle. By the time I was done with my meeting (within an hour), I saw AT LEAST one or two more cars being towed during that time. While I understand the management’s efforts to monitor unlawful parking on your property, the management should also recognize and correct an obvious error when one has been made.
--Sincerely Elaine T.