ConsumerWatch: Tow Companies Under Fire For Damage To Impounded Cars

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – If you’ve ever been towed for parking illegally in the city of San Francisco, you know how it feels to get hit with that $450 bill. But it can get a lot worse than that.

It happened to Jeff Moses from Monterey, in town for a business meeting. He admitted he didn’t move his car in time. “We all make mistakes,” he said.

So he paid his fines, but when he picked up his Mercedes: “It started making a funny noise. I thought it was the muffler,” he said. So he immediately filed a damage report with AutoReturn, the city’s tow contractor which operates the impound lot.

But when the noise got worse he took it to two different mechanics. “They told me the engine shifted and the engine seals were broken and the only way that can happen on a car like this was to have (it) dropped,” he said.

The estimate came in at over $1,000. So Moses filed a claim with the city, which was promptly denied. Then he filed a claim with AutoReturn, and that, too, was denied. “They just deny my claim, they just continue to deny my claim,” he said.

So who is responsible in cases like this? Even though the city is ordering the tows, it said it’s not liable, as spelled out clearly in the towing contract.  AutoReturn said it’s not liable, either, because it doesn’t actually do the towing and doesn’t even have tow trucks.

AutoReturn subcontracts to more than a dozen local towers, who are the ones who ultimately have to pay if they’re found at fault.

“We basically are like a judge between the person whose car has been towed and the tow company,” explained Sam Singer, spokesperson for AutoReturn. Singer said the company’s claims manager is that judge, deciding whether a claim is legitimate or not.

“This past year there were approximately 800 claims that were made,” said Singer.  That’s compared to the more than 60,000 cars towed. Out of those claims, more than 150 – about 18 percent- were paid out, according to Singer.  

So are 80% of the claims bogus?  “Many times, when we show them the process they realize that the damage they were claiming could not have been caused by the tower,” said Singer.

Singer claims a number of people who file complaints change their mind once they are shown how their car was towed.

So what about Moses’ claim? “He has not submitted any proof to us that was verifiable. If I were being charitable, this gentleman’s claim is illegitimate,” said Singer.  “If I were being very forthright, I would tell you it’s fraudulent. The car couldn’t have been dropped.”

But according to the two mechanics, AutoReturn never called either of them to discuss their findings, or actually looked at the car.  The San Francisco Police Department told CBS 5 sometimes towed cars do get dropped.

”There were no safety devices attached to that vehicle whatsoever,” said Sgt. Bill Rossi after looking at CBS 5 video of cars being towed.   Sgt. Rossi and his partner Sgt. John Haggett oversee the city’s towing system.

“It’s a very strong possibility that if the road conditions were bad and they were to hit a bump that that vehicle would completely dislodge from the tow truck,” said Rossi. Every tow that you have showed me here the vehicles were not properly strapped to the tow truck.”

Their conclusion: “I think the tow truck drivers are rushing their tows. They want it to get returned as quickly as possible.” Moses believes that rush to tow caused the damage to his car, which conked out for good outside CBS 5 studios during the interview for this story.

Moses filed a lawsuit against AutoReturn in small claims court and was waiting on a ruling.

Meanwhile, towing complaints overall are down since AutoReturn took over the San Francisco’s towing contract from the former tower, City Tow.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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