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Rogue Tow Truck Drivers Hold Cars Hostage, Run Up Bills -- And Chicago Could Have Ended It All Years Ago

CHICAGO (CBS) -- You just had an accident.

You're upset and you're shaken.

And if you're not careful, you're taken by rogue tow truck drivers. They hold your car hostage then run up the bills.

CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker reported Tuesday on the legal loophole that makes Chicago drivers easy targets for abuse.

Lisa Young had a car accident at the corner of 99th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Her car was a wreck and she needed a tow.

"I was pretty shaken up," Young said.

That's when drivers from County Towing showed up. Her boyfriend approved the tow.

"He asked them, 'Are you all AAA?' And they said, 'Yeah, we're AAA,'" Young recalled.

They weren't.

"And he says, 'You all are taking it to Volvo right?' And he goes, 'Yeah, it's going to Volvo,'" Young said.

It didn't.

She believed the tow company stole her car and even filed a police report. But it turns out Young's car wasn't stolen.

She was just the latest victim of an abusive practice that's plagued Chicago drivers for decades.

RELATED: Victim's Car Vanishes After It Was Towed From Accident Scene | 2 Investigators: Tow Truck Drivers Follow Accident Victim To Hospital | 10th Chicago Cop Charged In Federal Probe Of Tow Truck Scams

It starts when an accident is called out over a scanner. Police respond and just seconds after they leave, tow drivers – known to monitor police scanners – suddenly appear.

That is how most of the rogue tow truck companies operate, preying on drivers in their most vulnerable moments. They pressure, intimidate or somehow convince drivers to give up their cars.

CBS 2 happened upon an accident scene and spoke to the tow truck company employees who ran over to the driver involved in the crash. We asked if they were working with police. They said they were independent contractors.

One of the guys explained how they got there.

"We was just chilling, getting some food coming down this way and just seen a bunch of lights – and we pulled over to see what's up," he said.

But, the other man working with him, "The customer called us."

We don't know where the drivers took a car belonging to a woman involved in the accident. But remember Lisa Young? She spent days looking for her car.

"I'm already physically not feeling well, and then to run around trying to find my car," Yong said.

She checked two storage lots, the Volvo dealer, and the tow company's office – where she only found an apartment complex, but not her car. Police eventually found Young's car in Calumet City at an auto body shop.

"I'm like, why is my car in Calumet City?" said Young.

Finding the car was hard enough. Getting it back was another hassle and another four days.

When Young's insurance company called to get the car back - the bill kept going up from $600 to $1,200 to $1,600 to $2,500. Eventually, it ended up at $2,900.

We tried to find out how Young's car got to the Calumet City auto body shop and why it cost so much money to get it back. Someone we spoke with there said he didn't know and couldn't help us.

We also went to several lots looking for tow truck drivers who might defend themselves against accusations that they're nothing more than criminals with tow trucks.

The companies roam Chicago streets looking for accidents – holding cars hostage until insurance companies. Sometimes drivers, without insurance, pay exorbitant fees often amounting to thousands of dollars.

"These people are scammers," said Daniel Cohen.

Cohen's story is like every other. Accident one minute. The next, a tow truck on the scene.

"I'm thinking it's legit," he said, because the towers had cards with several insurance logos on the back.

But his car went missing for three days.

"I was angry, upset, frustrated," he said.

Cohen's car turned up only after his insurance company hired a legitimate tower to pay the ransom of $3,020 in cash and then deliver to a legitimate repair shop.

"This is highway robbery," said Roger Morris. Morris is the former Communications Director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau which is based in Des Plaines.

Morris showed us a stack of 54 towing bills of varying amounts. One of them was for $5,310, another for $4,820, and another for $5,160.

In total, the bills added up to more than $150,000. That was what just one insurance company was forced to pay predatory towers over the course of six months.

A single bill from a legitimate tower averages $300 to $400.

"And who's paying for it? Oh well, it's the insurance company's problem," said Morris. "Well, you pay the insurance premiums so none of us are escaping."

Chicago Could Have Done Something About This
But none of us had to suffer like this. Chicago could have ended this abuse years ago.

"If Chicago Police would just call for the tow at the time of the crash," said Ed Forsythe who represents legitimate tow drivers.

His solution? "While they're writing the crash report, call for the tow truck."

He and other insurance experts proposed that simple solution in 2015, but Chicago said no.

"'We don't do it.' That's what the police said," recalled Forsythe.

In 2008, a law passed allowing police across Illinois to call private towers from a pre-approved list.

In 2016, an amendment took effect giving law enforcement agencies in cities with a population over 1 million a pass. That means Chicago Police can opt out.

But There Are Regulations In Other Cities
Elsewhere in the country, in two cities with populations over a million, police do make those calls. In New York and Philadelphia, only towers on a pre-approved list and called by police can remove cars from accident scenes.

In both of those cities, as well as Los Angeles, cap fees for towing and storage where the average amount paid is under $300.

Remember County Towing, the company that hauled away Lisa Young's car and charged her insurance company nearly $3,000? She's not the only one complaining.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, the state agency charged with regulating tow companies, got five similar complaints this year about County Towing before Young had her accident. The ICC slapped County with $2,600 in fines which it never paid, and one report even shows County Towing operating under a suspension.

Yet it was still operating.

At a public meeting of the ICC, we tried to ask the Chairwoman, Carrie Zalewski, a few questions. She didn't answer.

Then, after a recent Chicago City Council meeting, we tried to speak with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She has the power to push for policies to protect Chicago drivers from rogue towers. But she didn't stop to hear our main question.

Why can cities like New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, make it easier for consumers and Chicago can't? Chicago PR folks gave us Rosa Escareno, the Commissioner of Chicago's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, to answer that question.

"I get it. I think it's a legitimate point," she said.

Escareno wasn't around in 2015 but today made promises.

"I think if there is something more we can do, I'm completely open to doing that," she said.

Our job, to make sure city leaders keep their promises.

"They need to do something about it," said Daniel Cohen.

Because Chicagoans are fed up with predatory towers.

Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said it's the department's position "that it's best for consumers to decide which private vendor is best for them."

"The police department should not be in the business of recommending private tow operators as those types of arrangements can lead to pay for play corruption scandals which have affected numerous police departments across the country including here in Chicago. Situations like that also make it easy for predatory towing," Guglielmi stated in an email. "Private entities like AAA and other automobile associations or vehicle manufacturers also offer towing options for vehicle owners. Chicago police officers our charge with investigating the criminality of traffic incidents and leaving the transport of private vehicles up to their owner."

So until we see some changes, here's how you can avoid being a victim – simply say no.

If you didn't call the tow truck company don't give them your car. If the driver tells you he was sent by your insurance company or AAA call to confirm.

You should also take pictures of any documents you're shown and do not sign any estimated bill.

Finally, you should call police if the tow drivers are harassing you.

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