Report warns about towing companies paying kickbacks for tips about cars to tow

It’s a hassle no driver wants to deal with – finding out your car has been towed.

It happens to millions of drivers every year and now a new watchdog report is revealing some towing companies are paying kickbacks to property owners or even law enforcement officers who tip them off about cars to tow.

The report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund said only 17 states ban kickbacks in some way for private property towing.

“If you park improperly, it’s OK for you to face consequences that are fair and transparent but what’s happening across this country is not OK,” said Teresa Murray, a Consumer Watchdog for U.S. PIRG. “There are all kinds of abuses that are taking place.”

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In one case, the report said a local news investigation uncovered predatory practices from businesses in Lubbock, Texas.

“In that case, businesses received $20 for every vehicle towed from their properties, leading the businesses to make more than $500 a week from tows alone,” the report said.

The findings show some cars may be targeted even though they are legally parked.

“All these stories from people across the country who are parked properly in parking spaces, not causing a problem, but because there are incentives to property owners, then these cars are getting towed,” said Murray.

The report also points to gaps in some state laws that don’t have a cap on towing or storage fees.

“Only about half of the states set maximum towing or maximum storage fees,” the report said.

We told you last year about Ben Sonnega, a driver who said he was wrongfully towed in Michigan, and got stuck with a $400 bill.

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“They’re in a position of power because they have your car,” said Sonnega.

The report also said only “20 states require a driver to have access to all items inside a towed vehicle, including a wallet, medication or a child car seat, without paying the bill.”

U.S. PIRG is calling for more consumer protections against predatory towing companies.

In the meantime, the group has this advice for drivers if their car is towed.

“The first phone call that I would make if I were in this situation and I thought my rights were being taken advantage of, or that a towing company had towed me from someplace that I was parked legally, I would call the local law enforcement office that has jurisdiction over that,” said Murray. “If people don’t know where to go, then I would start with their Attorney General’s Office because they will know who handles towing enforcement in that state.”