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CBS 2 Investigators: Area 1 Towing Returns Car, Refunds Fees Including COVID-19 Cleaning Charge

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After weeks of battling apparent towing abuses disclosed by the CBS 2 Investigators, a towing company that demanded $4,000 from an accident victim, including a COVID-19 cleanup charge, has returned the car to its owner.

For  $400.

CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman has the details.

Employees at the Area 1 Towing lot, at 4520 W. Homer, had previously yelled at the car owner Chris Morrow when he tried get his car.

It was a different story Monday morning when Morrow arrived with his attorney and had a brief discussion with a company operator.

"He said he wanted to help and he wanted to do it because he believes in God," Morrow recalled. "He wanted to be a helpful member of the community."

Chris finally got his barely drivable car back Monday morning, but still doesn't believe the reasons for the change of heart.

``He just wants this to go away and he'll say whatever he has to say to get rid of  it," Morrow said.

It all started after a 50-car pileup on April 15 on the Kennedy Expressway. An Area 1 tow truck driver told Chris' wife, Patthamon, that  he worked with the state police.

That gave her some confidence to let him tow the car but CBS 2 learned later that wasn't true.

She also said, "They just convinced me that insurance would cover everything." It didn't.

As she requested, the tow truck operator told her the car would be towed to her repair shop. It wasn't.

Instead it was towed to Area 1 Towing's lot where storage fees piled up, enhanced by other dubious charges, like $290 for COVID-19 cleaning.

"They're trying to make money off vulnerable people and the pandemic to just line their pockets," Morrow told Zekman when she first reported on this.

Since  then the Illinois Commerce Commission, the agency that regulates tow truck operates, issued citations in response to Chris' case and another complaint.

"The violations include failure to disclose fees and misrepresenting its affiliations." The company was fined a total of $1,300.

And Chris' attorney, Aleksander Pipovic, agreed to fight the towing company's daily escalating charges for free.

He sent written warning to Omar Diaz, an owner of Area 1 Towing  that the company "may be sued" for charging "exorbitant fees, "misrepresentation" and "fraud."

Asked to define fraud, Pipovic said. "If you lie to someone with the intention of making them do something, that's basically fraud."

He cited the companies refusal to provide Morrow with a detailed explanation for the towing fees as they quickly increased.

"They're asking for $2,000. Now its $3,000. Now it's 4,000. Now it's daily fees," Pipovic said. "I was stunned."

On Monday, the company came down to $400 in cash.

"These times have been uncertain and we weren't sure how we were gonna get the money to pay that."

He told CBS 2 investigator Pam Zekman that accident victims should not have to go  through all this to be treated fairly.

"People are in shock. They don't really know what to do because it's a traumatic experience,"  Morrow said.

"I'm just thankful we can move forward with our lives. Thank you CBS."

And thanks, he said, to Oscar Sandoval, another tow company operator who came to his rescue.

"I saw the piece on CBS 2 and then I reached out to Chris on Facebook," Sandoval said.

Sandoval was at the Area 1 tow lot when Chris' car was released this morning and took it to Chris' home.

"We understand it's a frustrating experience to be  in," Sandoval said. "So  we decided to help him out and give him a courtesy tow."

The owner of Area 1 Towing did not return calls from CBS 2. Lessons to be learned from all this:

*You should  know if you have insurance to cover towing charges.

*Get the name and number of the towing company Your insurance company works with.

*Beware of so-called accident chasers. Those are towing companies that listen to police scanners and show up at accident scenes to hustle business.

*Demand to see a written listing of their towing charges on  a "pre-tow disclosure " form before you  let them tow your car, requirement under state regulations.

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