Charlotte warns wrecker companies about predatory towing

Charlotte towing companies are getting a stern reminder: No lurking. And no taking cars outside city limits.

Four years after the city tried to put a stop to predatory towing, wrecker service owners and government leaders admit it still goes on.

As the city renegotiates its contracts with wrecker companies, Charlotte has for the first time defined what predatory towing is. The city also said it’s willing to cancel the deals as leverage to prevent it.

The city procurement department sent letters last week to the seven companies it uses to tow cars from car accidents and public streets to warn them of unethical practices. The letters caution them that their contracts can be voided.

The new contracts also call for reimbursement of all charges involved in a predatory tow, plus a $500 fine. The company would then either lose its contract or be put on probation.

The letters were only sent to the companies Charlotte works with. But council member LaWana Mayfield, who brought up the topic at a June meeting, said she hopes other companies will take note.

“That lets all the companies know that we will be watching,” Mayfield said. “Hopefully the message will go to whatever companies that are using practices that aren’t in the best interest of citizens.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says it receives up to 15 complaints per week about predatory towing. In addition, Charlotte’s 311 system has received 120 towing-related complaints since September 2008, according to city data.

The seven companies Charlotte contracts with are generally large and have not been the subject of complaints, said Amelia Beonde, services and technology supervisor with the city. A review of their Better Business Bureau pages shows that four of them have A+ ratings. The other three do not carry a rating but do not list any complaints in the past three years.

Business owners say the real problem comes from smaller operators who aren’t as well-known. A Yellow Pages search shows more than 100 companies in Charlotte that offer towing services.

But even when the rules are being followed, the emotional nature of towing can leave both sides unsatisfied.

Leslie Sherrill, who lives in the 1420 Magnolia apartment complex off Park Road, said her parents were towed while helping her move in – and she still hears the Dixie Towing truck most nights.

One time when she arrived home after 10 p.m., she said a man from the tow company came up to her as she got out of her car and shined a flashlight in her face asking her about her parking permit. And she said she’s seen the company refuse to unhook a car they’re planning to tow when the owner arrives – even though Charlotte’s ordinance requires them to.

“It is so predatory,” she said. “They’ll sit at the entrance to the parking garage and wait for somebody to park so they can tow them.”

Chris Van Zant, who owns Dixie Towing, said he follows the ordinance to the letter and only comes to tow when he receives a complaint.

Dixie Towing has an A rating with the Better Business Bureau and three complaints in the last three years that have been answered. In one case, Van Zant suspended a driver for two days without pay after hearing a complaint about the “combative nature” of a driver.

“To sit and watch them all night, I ain’t got time for that,” he said. “I'm just not into that aggressive towing.”

Starbucks controversy

Concerns about predatory towing in Charlotte arose in 2010 – when the building next to the Starbucks on East Boulevard was the primary source of complaints. Patrons said they would find a spot near the coffee shop, only to find their cars hooked up to a wrecker by the time they came out minutes later.

After some back and forth with the towing industry, the City Council in 2011 adopted a stringent set of rules for what wreckers must do before they can remove a car from a private lot.

The rules essentially prevent tow trucks from lurking near parking hot spots between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Lot owners now have to provide written permission for the tow and a description of the vehicle. The tow company then has to get the go-ahead from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

After 7 p.m., the rules change. The ordinance no longer requires an on-the-spot written order from a property owner to tow or boot a vehicle. When the ordinance was in the works in 2010, property managers told the city they didn’t want to have to wake up in the middle of the night to sign tow orders.

City contracts

The city of Charlotte’s tow contracts are more specialized. Charlotte contracts with wrecker services primarily to handle tow-aways from traffic accidents or public parking spaces. The police department, for example, can call a tow truck to move a disabled vehicle. Employees with the city’s Park It! program can call a wrecker for illegally parked vehicles.

Last year, the seven companies handled 56,741 tows, up about 6 percent from 2013. Each company is responsible for a geographic area and has a required response time of 30 minutes or less. The contracts run for five years, with the option to renew for two more years.

As the contracts were renewed in June, councilwoman Mayfield said she wanted to make sure the city wasn’t giving business to companies using unethical practices. That touched off the recent review of complaints.

“We want to make sure we’ve put them sufficiently on notice,” Beonde said.

The company that tows from the Starbucks lot – United Towing – does not have a contract with the city. A representative declined to comment. The company’s website says it takes “all local parking laws into consideration.”

Companies: We follow rules

Owners of the seven companies under contract with the city said they follow the rules – but know that other companies don’t.

“I know it’s out there, but it’s not us,” said Karen Williams, owner of Eastway Wrecker Service Inc. The company is responsible for towing from uptown.

Williams considers it predatory when a tow truck driver waits in a parking lot, watching for someone to leave their car in the wrong place. It’s also predatory, she said, if a company charges $250 or $300 to get a car back.

Charlotte used to cap towing fees at $120 for a standard vehicle, but a state Supreme Court decision struck down cities’ ability to limit those fees. Since then, some companies have raised prices to $150 or $175.

David Cici, owner of Southern Star of Charlotte Inc., said he’s aware of some companies being aggressive about towing from apartment complexes and retail strip malls. He said his company used to do that work but stopped taking it on a few years ago.

“It’s more inconvenient, and it brings a lot of bad attention to your business,” he said.

Dellinger Wrecker Service Inc. General Manager Tom Rivers said he wishes the city of Charlotte could do more to enforce the towing ordinance in the city. He said his company provides a valuable service, but when people have a run-in with a disreputable company, it colors their perspective of the industry.

“All of a sudden, every wrecker service is a thief,” he said.

Still lurking

To Rivers’ point: Lots of Charlotte residents do believe there is an issue with predatory towing. The fact that the rules change after 7 p.m. appears to contribute.

Ryan Sapel called the parking situation by Olde Mecklenburg Brewery close to Old Pineville Road and Woodlawn Road in south Charlotte a “scam.” He says he sees a tow truck patrolling gravel lots nearby. He’s seen frequent tows from businesses with gravel lots nearby.

“This place was definitely patrolling,” he said.

Olde Mecklenburg said it has recently leased an overflow parking lot and started hanging banners to let people know where they can and can’t park.

Complaints continue to come in about the Starbucks lot. The building shares a lot with another tenant and has about a dozen spaces marked off for coffee shop parking. The rest are designated for other businesses. Signs warn that the Key Man Building’s owners have authorized towing for cars parked improperly.

“Technically I was at fault,” said Parry Currier, who was towed when he parked in a space not marked for Starbucks. “However, the way they handled it seems predatory.”

How to tow properly

In private lots, the following criteria must be met before a car can be towed between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

▪ The parking lot owner must provide a written authorization for the tow, which includes the license plate number, make and model of the car and reason for the tow.

▪ The wrecker must call the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and log in that information and then get a complaint number from the department.

The rules are similar on public streets or lots. The Charlotte Department of Transportation has to issue a citation, call in a wrecker and be present at the vehicle before the car can be towed.

Companies under contract with Charlotte

▪ Bradley’s Wrecker Service Inc.

▪ Dellinger Wrecker Service Inc.

▪ Eastway Wrecker Service Inc.

▪ Hunter Auto and Wrecker Service Inc.

▪ Larry Campbell’s Towing & Recovery Inc.

▪ Southern Star of Charlotte Inc.

▪ Williams Wrecker Service.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer