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Alderman's Bid To Crack Down On Predatory Towing Stalls, Vote Delayed Until Next Month

CHICAGO (CBS) – A Northwest Side alderman's proposal to require towing companies to obtain a city license in order to respond to car crash scenes was held up on Wednesday, amid confusion over some of the requirements that would be imposed on tow truck operators.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) originally sought to create two classes of licenses for tow truck operators in Chicago – one to allow companies to tow unauthorized vehicles from private property, and the other to allow companies to tow damaged or disabled vehicles from city streets.

However, just hours before the City Council License Committee was set to take up his proposal, Villegas offered up a revised ordinance that focused solely on requiring licenses for tow truck operators seeking to haul away damaged or disabled cars from crash scenes.

Tow companies already are required to be licensed by the state in Illinois, but Villegas said state law allows municipal governments to set up their own licensing system, and he said requiring a city license would give Chicago more direct oversight of towing companies.

Villegas noted many private tow truck operators prey on people involved in traffic accidents by swooping in at crash scenes, falsely claiming they were sent by the police or the driver's insurance company, and then charging people as much as $5,000 to get their car back after it's been hauled away.

"Chicago is the second-worst nationally among major cities for reports of towing abuse, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau," Villegas said.

The alderman's licensing proposal would require tow companies to pay a $250 fee per truck, as well as $250 or $750 per storage lot, depending on if they have a state license.

Chicago Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno said the ordinance would prohibit tow truck drivers from stopping at or near a crash site to solicit a tow. They could only respond to a crash if called by the vehicle owner or operator, a police officer, or another government official.

Tow companies also would be required to keep records of all stored vehicles, and any improperly towed vehicles must be released without charge.

Violators would face fines of $500 to $1,000 per offense. Tow truck operators who falsely claim to be a representative of law enforcement or government when they show up at a crash scene would face penalties of $10,000 to $20,000, as well as possible imprisonment.

However, representatives from the AAA said they had requested an exemption from a rule requiring roadside paperwork when tow truck drivers show up at a crash scene to haul off a damaged vehicle, because the motor club already collects information from their members before responding to a crash scene.

Villegas claimed the latest version of the ordinance he offered has no such requirement for paperwork at crash scenes.

Noting the latest version of Villegas' proposal was sent to his colleagues just hours before Wednesday's meeting, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who chairs the License Committee, said she would hold the measure in committee until its next meeting in May to give Villegas and other city officials time to clear up the confusion.

Villegas strongly objected to delaying a vote on his proposal, but ultimately relented.

The alderman said the ultimate goal was to crack down on "abusive practices from rogue towers."

Tim Lynch, senior director of government affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said predatory tow companies are "very prevalent" in Chicago.

"Let's face it, auto accidents are no fun. They're a very stressful experience. I was in one 15 years ago, I never want to go through it again. Thank God I wasn't hurt, and nobody else was hurt, but injuries happen,"

"The last thing any of us want is for some third party, unsolicited, to come in and try to take advantage of us in that stressful situation, and that's exactly what we're seeing quite often here on the streets of Chicago,"

Lynch said other major cities – including Denver, Miami, and Los Angeles – already require city licenses for towing operators.

Chicago Police Sgt. Keith Blair, commanding officer of the Major Auto Theft Investigative Unit, said rogue tow operators will promise free rentals and other things to convince a driver to allow them to haul away their vehicle, only to end up holding it hostage for an exorbitant charge.

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