Tow Trucks Take Drivers For Ride

tow truck towing cash money
CBS/AP
While studying at a friend's house, Nadine Garrick parked her Acura along W Street in Washington D.C. When she returned, the car was gone.

She says it was not illegally parked, so she reported it stolen, but there were no leads.

Then, as CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, she suddenly received a letter from a local towing company. It had Garrick's car and threatened to sell or junk it unless she coughed up storage fees: a staggering $1,400.

Her car sat at the towing storage lot for about two months. In that time no one called her to notify her, and she didn't get any explanation about where it was for four other months. Altogether, her car was missing six months. To this day, it's unclear whether her car was ever stolen at all or illegally towed in a scam to rack up fees.

"There was a question as to whether cars that were parked in a perfectly legitimate fashion had been towed off the street for no reason other than it was a source of income for a towing operator," says attorney Philip Friedman.

Nationally, tow truck abuses are common -- from New York City to Chicago to Houston and Seattle. Incredibly, Virginia Congressman Jim Moran says the industry is virtually untouchable.

Most people don't know that these tow companies really have no regulation, says Moran.

In the 1990s, a law was passed making them largely subject only to federal regulation. Then they got Congress to abolish the federal authority.

"And so with two straight bills they were able to eliminate all the ability to regulate tow trucks," says Moran.

Moran aims to close the loophole with a bill that would let local authorities regulate tow companies for the first time in a decade.

The towing industry insists that's not needed and problems with rogue towers are rare.

"Generally, the industry is full of hard-working, dedicated individuals that provide service 24 hours a day," says Bill Giorgis, the president of the Towing and Recovery Association of America.

The Washington inspector general got involved and found more to the story, like "police officers ... appearing to work for the tow companies" and colluding to tow away legally parked cars. One cop was even "seen driving the tow crane while in his police uniform."

City officials had no comment regarding the alleged police misconduct. But, the city and four tow companies are being sued by Garrick and others. Some victims never got their cars back because their tow bill was more than the car was worth.

For Garrick, it was an expensive ride, but at least she's back in the driver's seat.