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City Officials: Towing Companies 'Going Rogue,' Illegally Removing Cars

By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Philadelphia District Attorney's office is reported to be investigating private towing companies for allegedly removing cars illegally from city streets.

The D.A.'s office declined comment. But city officials acknowledge it's a common practice.

"Towing companies are going rogue," says Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, whose office receives regular complaints, particularly in rapidly developing neighborhoods such as Fishtown, where parking gets scarcer and newer residents declare their front yards and side lots as "driveways."

Towing companies solicit these residents, promising to keep their parking area clear, and then post a sign declaring the spot a "tow-away" zone, according to Sanchez and others familiar with the practice.

But that is not sufficient grounds to tow cars from public streets, they say.

Karen Guss, spokesperson for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, says towing companies are allowed to tow cars illegally parked in front of driveways if they have a contract with the homeowner-- not merely a verbal agreement-- and the homeowner requests the tow.

But evidence abounds that the tow companies patrol neighborhoods looking for cars in front of driveways.

Sophie's experience is an example. She didn't want to use her last name for fear of reprisals to her parents, who allowed George Smith towing to post a sign by their driveway.

Sophie lives with them in Fairmount and recently arrived home with three kids to unload and so parked in front of her driveway. A short time later, she heard a tow truck.

"And I ran downstairs and asked the driver, 'Yo, what are you doing?' He goes, kind of in a confused voice, 'oh, you didn't call a tow?' because he saw me come out of the house. I said, 'No, no. That's my car. You're towing my car,'" Sophie said.

Several car owners in the neighborhood told similar stories, of being towed though a space was legal and no homeowner had requested a tow.

George Smith declined numerous requests for comment.

Quinones Sanchez believes some towing companies use even more underhanded methods.

"We know of cases where they've moved the car to make it illegally parked. And towed it," says Sanchez. "It's auto theft."

Quinones Sanchez recently introduced a bill requiring a curb cut registry, hoping to curb some of the activity.

But towing companies routinely disregard existing law.

Another example: requiring cash when legally, they must accept credit cards.

Guss concedes enforcement is difficult, leaving car owners with few options.

"One, If you witness a tow truck making off with your legally parked car, you can call 911 because they're stealing your car," she says.

Once the car is gone, the only option is to sue.

"Not only can you get your damages back," says Guss, "you would get the cost of your attorney paid for so it would not be a cost to you and you can get another $2,000."

But car owners, dependent on a car and unsure of their rights, usually just pay fees of $175 and more and don't pursue the matter further.

She says the Department is working on better enforcement measures. She also confirms L & I has referred complaints to the D.A.'s office.

Some car owners who complained say the office has called them to follow up.

"Everyone wants to stop this predatory behavior," said Guss.

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