Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Here’s a case from late November: A foot soldier for your homeowners association is sick of seeing that champagne Celica parked on the street when it’s supposed to be — so sayeth the HOA — parked in a driveway. Unwilling to tack another breezily hostile note onto the windshield, he calls a tow truck company to have the car hauled.
The tow truck driver works on commission and in the same neighborhood he sees 16 other cars guilty of the same parking sin. So without getting approval from the homeowners association, he tows each car to a nearby desert lot and calls his co-workers to help haul them back to the boss. Ka-ching! Impound fees for everyone!
Police call it rogue towing — tow truck drivers take cars that nobody asked them to and then delay reporting it for as long as possible to boost commissions and rack up fees.
Like all good scams, rogue towing has landed in Las Vegas, and in the laps of Metro’s auto theft unit, though it’s not exactly theft.
It’s something more like fraud or deceptive business practices or even extortion. But tow trucks are regulated by the Nevada Transportation Authority, which doesn’t typically pursue criminal charges. Instead, the agency scolds rogue operators with fines — losses for which some drivers make up, police say, with even more rogue tows.
So police are in talks with the district attorney’s office, combing through Nevada’s laws to try to find an angle to arrest and prosecute the towing rogues. Cops have been working on it since August and there are finally a few cases up for consideration, though it’s still not clear whether they’ll pass muster as misdemeanors.
Meanwhile, cars keep getting carted away.
Transportation Authority investigator Ruben Aquino can’t give exact numbers, though he says “it’s happening in the valley, absolutely, 100 percent, all the time.”
Here’s another way it happens: A tow truck driver spots a car that is illegally parked. So he tows it. According to administrative rules enforced by the Transportation Authority, he is supposed to phone or fax the vehicle’s identification number to police within an hour of taking the car. That’s to prevent police from treating the car as stolen if its owner, after discovering his vehicle has vanished, calls in a report. But the tow truck driver conveniently forgets to call police. Forgets, in fact, to let anybody know for, say, four days. By the time he remembers, the car has racked up a stack of storage and processing fees that keeps growing each day. Ka-ching! The owner has to cough up hundreds of dollars if he wants that car back.
It’s not uncommon for those fees to quickly snowball into thousands of dollars, Aquino said.
Of course, there’s another option. If you can’t pay the bill, you can sign over the car’s title. Ka-ching! The tow company can turn around and auction it off to someone else or sell it for scrap!
This scenario is often preferable to rogue operators, police say, because owning the car outright is easier than hassling someone to make payments on fees.
This is why some rogue tow truck drivers seek out older cars, Metro Sgt. Rick Given said. They know the tow charges will quickly outweigh the value of the vehicle, and once that happens, the owner is more likely to sign over the car. The rogues would rather just own the car than wait for someone to make payments.
Not all tow truck businesses are bad news, of course. It’s just that there are some crooked operators, like the two tow truck drivers who were fired after police started investigating them, Metro auto theft Lt. Bob DuVall said. See, sometimes their bosses don’t even know, he said. And other times they turn a blind eye.
“This is just something that’s going to have to be watched,” he said. “It’s just one arm of the octopus.”
Here’s another way it works: A tow truck driver volunteers to help an apartment manager monitor parking violations. The driver asks the manager to sign a paper giving him permission to tow, but fails to mention that he is supposed to get permission for each car he tows. Instead, the driver just photocopies the same signed paper any time he wants to take a car from the complex, and never bothers to ask for permission again.
Now the apartment parking lot is his to purge. Ka-ching!
This variation on the scheme might be one the police currently have the best chance at busting, however. Nevada law forbids tow truck drivers from acting as “authorized agents.” In plain English, that means they’re not supposed to seek out parking violations on private property. They’re supposed to be summoned.
In the parlance of tow truck drivers, it means they can’t go “cruising.”
Tow company owner John Howell would love to see more rogue drivers arrested. Howell says impounds are down at AA Action Towing, and he blames cruising rogues. Howell’s problem is that he follows the rules and waits for clearance to tow a car. While he waits, however, rogue operators are out sweeping neighborhoods and stealing business.
If it keeps up, Howell says, the bad seeds of the tow business will cast all drivers in an unflattering light.
“Someday,” he said, “somebody is going to screw things up for everybody.”
DuVall is already thinking of the next legislative session, wondering what kind of bill would give his detectives more teeth to clamp down on the problem.
He need look no farther than New Jersey. In October, Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law a “Predatory Towing Prevention Act,” a series of regulatory laws that would prevent tow truck operators from “holding vehicles hostage for exorbitant fees,” Corzine noted in a written statement. The act requires the owner of the vehicle or his representative, such as a homeowners association manager, to be present and give written authorization for every towed car.
In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich passed a “Truth in Towing” law to penalize tow truck drivers who were targeting accident victims, calling themselves “safety relocators” and towing crashed cars for exorbitant fees that later blindsided the owners of the vehicles.
But in Nevada, DuVall will have to wait another year before he can try to get state lawmakers to crack down on rogue towing in the next legislative session.
In the meantime, his officers are doing some “proactive work” aimed at preventing rogue towing, but he won’t say what that work might entail.
Howell said he doesn’t need to know exactly what police are doing, as long as they are doing something.
“There’s a lot of guys out there who need to feel the heat,” Howell said, “if you know what I mean.”