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Putting The Brakes On Illinois' Towing Troubles?

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The CBS 2 Investigators have been digging into towing troubles in Chicago and its suburbs for years.

CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker discovered a solution that's been a well-kept secret for more than a decade. Now, it's piqued the interest of one state lawmaker.

Just after Christmas, on Dec. 27, 2019, Chicago Police were called to a South Side parking lot.

Body camera video shows one officer walking up to a tow truck and yelling at the driver: "Hey! You're being recorded. Can you put the window down please?" The tow truck driver responds, "What?"

A heated exchange follows between Chicago Police and both men inside the tow truck.

The CPD officer tells the driver: "You need to relax." He adds, "Lower your voice, dude."

The tow truck driver responds: "I'm a grown man. I can talk how I want to talk."

"This is the lot," says the woman who called police.

She wanted her Volkswagen Tiguan back from the tow company, but it wanted a ridiculous amount of money to let her have it. $7,000.

It's an outrageous bill, but it's not rare in the state of Illinois, particularly in Chicago. One of the CPD officers told the woman, "I've been here a couple of times where they've price-gouged people."

CBS 2, through a public records request, found that the Illinois Commerce Commission received 271 complaints over a two-year period in 2019 and 2020, including the one that brought CPD to that lot on 74th Street. Many drivers are angry about non-disclosure of fees, in particular those staggering storage costs.

Here's how those rack up.

Once a crashed car is hooked up to the tow truck, tow drivers are in complete control and they can take the vehicle wherever they want.

That's what happened to Daniel Cohen, who described his ordeal as stressful.

He got into an accident on 82nd Street and Racine Avenue and told the tow truck driver who showed up on the scene to take his car to Euro Collision in the South Loop.

"But when I called Euro, it wasn't there," Cohen said.

He spent three days trying to find his car, starting with the address on that towing company's business card.

"It wasn't there. I went to another location, it wasn't there," Cohen said.

While Cohen searched, the storage fees added up.

By the time he found his car, three days later and only after the towers called his insurance company, he discovered the bill balance had ballooned.

"The bill went from $1,000 to $5,000," Cohen said.

Illinois State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), who represents the 18th District north of Chicago, calls that a problem. Her response is to fix it at the state level by introducing new legislation with a potential solution.

"This bill would provide for a public database where anyone who had their car towed could look it up," Rep. Gabel said.

That public database would be managed by the ICC. Towers would be required to input the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), license plate number, tow company name and most importantly, the location of the towed car.

"It will at least make it easier to find your car to not have to pay for storage fees," says Rep. Gabel.

Stand up: What a concept! But it's not original. We found one other state that has a similar database designed to help the public find their towed cars.

That state is 1,400 miles away, across the Rockies, in Utah.

The Utah database was created 10 plus years ago," said Chad Sheppick, Director of the Motor Carrier Division of the Utah Department of Transportation.

In Utah, a vehicle owner simply enters their VIN and license plate number and within seconds they have the exact location of their car.
"It does provide individuals quicker access to their vehicles which could contribute to a lower fee," Sheppick said.
The Utah law even requires tow companies to report the information quickly, within hours of the vehicle being towed.

State Rep. Gabel's bill would include the same requirement and the same penalty. -If tow companies disobey the rules, they get hit where it hurts most.

"You couldn't charge for storage anytime earlier than the date that you put it in the database," Gabel said.

As for that tow company using that lot on 74th Street? ICC has now revoked that company's Public Carrier Certificate and safety towing license.

As for Daniel Cohen's car? His insurance company eventually paid the rogue towers more than $3,000 to get it back. So, of course, Cohen favors a public database that could have saved his insurer mountains of money and him many headaches.

"It would have allowed me not to go on a rat race or a crazy chase of three, four days looking for my car," Cohen said.

Rep. Gabel plans to introduce her towing bill soon.

The ICC told CBS 2 it can't comment on the bill until it's officially introduced:

"With the Gabel legislation yet to be introduced, we cannot speak to its impact in either direction on the Commission's work. However, there is another concerted effort to address towing related issues with the city ordinance introduced by Alderman Gil Villegas (36th). We believe this ordinance will go far toward ensuring that road safety is prioritized by towing companies and local officials, as well as mitigate the post-towing costs experienced by some towing customers."

While we researched this story, we heard from other states interested in Utah's law and Rep. Gabel's bill.

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