Towing a fine line: exploring "predatory towing" in Wilmington - WECT, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Towing a fine line: exploring "predatory towing" in Wilmington

A car getting towed from a parking lot in Wilmington A car getting towed from a parking lot in Wilmington

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Chances are it has happened to you or someone you know: you park your car and when you return, it's gone. It's a frustrating experience for those who have been towed.

Some call it "predatory towing" and it happens when your car is towed without your consent. Most often, the car is towed as a result of an apartment complex, business or homeowners' association hiring a company to check the property and enforce parking rules.

We captured some amazing video, showing a tow truck hauling off a car from a Wilmington apartment, completed in less than 60 seconds.

Carolyn Strickland knows how fast it can happen.

"They come in at all hours of the night and take cars," Strickland said.

Her sister was towed from her visitor spot in front of her condo in Ashton Place. She paid $100 to get her sister's car back. However, she never got peace of mind over what happened.

"They said she was parked on the grass but they never gave me a copy of the photo," she said. "Also, they told me they had a contract with the homeowners' board. I asked for a copy of that. They couldn't produce any."

She says not just the tow truck company, but her HOA went too far, entering into an agreement that allows the trucks to troll through the community at all hours of the day and night.

"I'm frightened to leave my car on the street, wondering if I am going to have a car to drive to work the next morning," Strickland said.

Kathy Graham from the Better Business Bureau said the agency gets a lot of complaints about predatory towing.

"They have been so sneaky and creepy these tow truck companies," she said. "It's an easy way to make cash money."

Last year, Graham said they investigated almost 100 complaints from those who were victims of predatory towing practices in Wilmington.

She said if you think you were wrongly towed, you should contact the BBB to lodge a complaint.

If complaints don't get resolved, that could lead to a poor rating for the tow truck company.

"There are a lot of them on the bad list," she said. "If you need to get your car towed – you might want to check with us first to see if they are one of those companies that have that F rating before you do business with those companies."

If you want to see the full list of Wilmington tow truck companies, click here.

But Graham said, if you think you are a victim of predatory towing, unfortunately, there aren't many laws on the books to protect you.

The city of Wilmington adopted new towing regulations a few years ago, capping the amount you have to pay to get your car back. 

Private lots are also required to post signs warning of towing. 

But it hasn't curbed the complaints, according to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

"It's a concern of mine," he said. "I know some people who have gotten their cars towed and when they go to pick up their cars, they can't use credit cards they can only use cash."

That's a complaint from many of those who have been towed in Wilmington.

Other cities, including Charlotte and Raleigh, have ended cash-only towing.

They've also made other changes to better protect car owners from predatory towing.

In both cities, if a car owner shows up while his or her vehicle is being towed, the driver must give the car back.

Charlotte leaders went even further. According to published reports, towing must be complaint-oriented, meaning companies are no longer allowed to tow vehicles as a representative of the parking lot owner. During certain hours of the day, a lot owner must sign a written authorization for a car to be towed.

When we talked to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, he admitted more could be done to curb this practice.

"It's a concern of mine," he said. "I think it is something that we need to take a look at. I believe it is going to take some specific legislation to address some of the issues that we are hearing in the community."

Saffo said he would like to talk about possible rule changes with state legislators first.

"When it comes onto people's private property is where we seem to be getting a lot of calls, HOAs, apartment complexes, private parking lots, where the private property owners have gotten some kind of an agreement with the private towing companies that towed some of these people." Saffo said. "I think it is something we have to address and take a look at with our state legislators because some of it involves private property rights."

Other communities that get hit hard by predatory towing practices: our area's beach towns.

"It's a very bad experience for a new visitor to our town," said Carolina Beach Mayor Bob Lewis.

He said he believes that HOAs have good intentions, but the associations and tow companies take it too far.

"They {visitors} check into a condo and there is basically a predatory towing driver just sitting in the parking lot," he said. "As soon as they take their stuff upstairs, they go up for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, next thing you know he lifts that car up and takes it out of there. Somebody forgot to hang the thing up there that says hey – I have a parking pass.

Right now, Lewis says if you catch them in the act, you can pay $50 on the spot to get your car back.

The companies have to report to the police department where your car was taken. We checked with the police department and last year, 310 cars were towed from Carolina Beach.

After we talked to him about laws in other parts of the state, Lewis said he would also consider tougher regulations.

"I would like to pursue that because our police department gets a lot of complaints and it's not them," he said.

For those who feel they've been victimized by predatory towing practices, they hope to see changes to the rules to prevent others from going through similar experiences.

"It should not be just a sweep through the neighborhood," Strickland said. "It should be a call is made and it is documented and the person who makes the call has to give the reasons why and all of those things have to be given to the person whose car is towed."

It's important to note that some, not all, tow companies engage in this practice.

We heard from a number of local tow truck companies while working on this story. Some tell us that if people obeyed parking rules, they wouldn't be towed.

Others said only a few companies do non-consensual tows.

None of the tow company owners wanted to talk on camera. However, those we spoke with said new regulations would help the industry.

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