Broward tow law still failing consumers, officials say

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Brittany Wallman and John Maines

Published July 19, 2014

Broward’s new tow law isn’t tough enough to protect consumers from abuse, county officials say.
In the two years since the county cracked down on tow operators, tow truck drivers have continued to yank cars they weren’t supposed to take, refuse to accept credit cards and charge more than the law allows, county records show.
There have been some improvements, including four fewer consumer complaints in the first five months of the year. But officials say an even tougher law is needed because tow truck drivers are still mistreating drivers.

“The consumer is still not protected by our towing ordinance,” Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs said. “Consumers are largely preyed on in certain areas of the county, and that has not changed.”
Maurice Watkins told the Sun Sentinel his truck was towed in March by All County Towing from his own condo parking spot in Lauderhill. When he refused to pay, he was told his 1997 Ford pickup truck had been auctioned off.
The towing company declined to comment. The condo president couldn’t explain why the truck was towed, saying Watkins should have just paid to get it back.
Tales like Watkins’ were the impetus for Broward County’s tow crackdown in the first place.
In the two years since the county cracked down on tow operators with a tough new law, tow truck drivers have continued to abuse Broward drivers, engaging in wrongful towing, refusing to accept credit cards, and charging more than the law allows, complaint.

First there was the mass towing of Sawgrass Mills shoppers on Black Friday in 2011. Then, Jacobs discovered rampant towing at apartment complexes, after her son’s car was towed for backing into a parking spot.
The County Commission responded in 2012 by forcing new regulations on tow operators, including requiring that they accept credit cards and dictating that every tow be personally approved by a representative of the property owner.

Commissioners a year ago promised a second round of reforms, citing a Sun Sentinel investigation published in May 2013 that found tow companies were continually violating the county’s consumer-oriented tow law.
Those reforms are still in the making, expected to be publicly aired at the commission later this year. The next crackdown could require registration for companies that want to tow in Broward County, giving the county authority to revoke tow licenses for repeat lawbreakers, Jacobs said. The law also may contain a consumer bill of rights.
Towing hotspots
In the year since the Sun Sentinel’s investigation, data from Fort Lauderdale — site of the some of the heaviest towing in the county — shows only a slight reduction in tows citywide. And a few properties downtown continue to be the site of hundreds of tows a year.
A sign at Westway Towing tells customers the credit card machine was down. The sign remained up for at least two weeks. Officials there said they do accept credit cards, as the county law requires. But the complaints are still troubling, Jacobs said.

Some of the addresses with the highest number of tows surround the Broward County Courthouse, and Broward Commissioner Lois Wexler said she believes the high parking rate at the county’s courthouse parking garage contributes to it.
She and other commissioners have vowed to reduce in the fall the $8-an-hour, $60-a-day parking rate.
“In my mind, it’s related,” Wexler said. “If I can give people a reasonable place to park and it’s not going to be a mortgage payment, I’d be thinking I’d cut into the tow business.”
Troubling complaints
Complaints have dropped this year, but not by much. By mid-May, 11 complaints had been lodged, compared with 15 last year in that time period.
That’s a good sign, said attorney Joel Metter in the county’s Environmental Licensing and Building Permitting Division, where tow complaints are investigated.
“Maybe the message got out to the industry that there really are consequences now for not doing things the right way,” Metter said.
Of the 61 people who complained in the past year and a half, more than a third of the complaints were found to be legitimate, and $1,845 was refunded to customers, an analysis of county records shows. Ten operators were charged with breaking the law — some of them multiple times.
Watkins, a condo owner at Cypress Tree, said there was no reason for his truck to be towed.
“I called the police,” Watkins said. “I assumed it had been stolen.”
Watkins said his truck had an owner sticker on it and was parked in the correct space. He said even after the condo manager called the tow company and confirmed that his sticker was legitimate, All County Towing demanded a payment to release the truck.
“I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no,” Watkins recalled, refusing to pay the eventual $600 tab.
A month went by, and the tow company told Watkins that his truck had been auctioned off, he recalled.
All County owner Chris Casale said he didn’t know why Watkins’ truck was towed and said he’d research the case. He said he could auction it off, by law, but hasn’t done so yet. But Casale then couldn’t be reached for comment on the case, despite numerous phone calls and emails.
Condo President Anthony Ray said he doesn’t know why Watkins’ truck was towed, but said he should have just paid to get it back, when the fee was low.
The county’s law bans tows that aren’t called in by a representative of the property owner. At Watkins’ condo, the representative is a parking lot monitor brought in by All County Towing, Ray said. Under the county’s law, the person authorizing tows can’t be paid by the tow company. In this case, Casale wouldn’t say whether he pays the tow authorizer or not.
“I don’t know,” he told the Sun Sentinel, adding that he would check. He did not return subsequent calls for comment.
All County All County is one of the biggest towers in Broward County.
Data from Broward Sheriff’s Office from 2010 to March 2013 showed that All County towed 12 percent of the vehicles removed by scores of tow companies. The only company larger was Westway Towing, which was responsible for 24 percent of the tows.
While Westway focuses on towing from car accidents, All County dominates when it comes to towing from private property. The company was responsible for the mass towing of cars around Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise on the day after Thanksgiving in 2011.
All County Towing also drew the most complaints to the county in the past year and a half — 18, or 30 percent of the total complaints lodged against 25 companies. The company was charged seven times by the county with breaking the new tow law. The remainder of the cases were closed due to insufficient evidence, lack of jurisdiction or when the complainants failed to follow up with the necessary proof, records show.
In one All County Towing case, in October, a Davie man said he interrupted a tow driver attempting to take his car from his front yard for violating community parking rules. The driver charged him $100 to release it on the spot — double the legal charge, county records show.
‘Bootleg operators’
Westway drew just four complaints, only one of which was sustained.
Westway was among the companies accused of forcing customers to pay with cash, records show. A Lauderdale Lakes man said he was towed for having an expired registration in December and told he had to pay $124 cash because the credit card machine wasn’t operating.
The case was dropped when the man didn’t follow up.
At the Westway office in June, a sign taped to the window warned customers that “our credit card machine is down.”
Co-owner Brett Holcombe said he’s been following the law, which requires that credit cards be accepted. He held up receipts from credit card payments made that day and prior days, saying he hadn’t noticed the sign. He said it must have been put up previously, when his office was experiencing trouble processing credit card payments.
Two weeks later, the sign was still on the window, the Sun Sentinel found.
Still, Casale, Holcombe and other tow operators say they’re cooperating with the county in fashioning its new law.
For one thing, they want to see requirements raised for those who wish to tow cars in Broward; that would benefit larger companies by driving some small operators out of business.
“We’ve been pushing to get these bootleg operators, these pirate operators, to be held accountable like we are,” said Holcombe, who supports registration, as well as insurance requirements.
The tow operators also hope any legal crackdown will be followed by a county vote to raise towing rates.
Sean Loscalzo, owner of A Superior Towing Co., and a leader of the Sunshine State Towing Association, said the companies need a rate increase to keep up with rising prices of fuel and other items.
Loscalzo said he thinks the hail of publicity from the county and the media — starting with the Black Friday towings — helped straighten out the ethics of some tow operators. Jacobs agreed, saying more people are watching, which has helped.
“There’s a lot of towers who are doing it right,” Jacobs said, “And then there’s the bad guys. How do you get the bad guys to do it right?”