PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — You're in a car accident and need a tow, but when you get the bill it's for thousands of dollars.
As outrageous as that sounds, it's happening to people in Pittsburgh.
Emily Burton lost consciousness when she crashed her BMW on the way to work in the Strip District two weeks ago.
"I kinda just woke up in my car," she said.
And when she did, a tow truck driver was there to hook up her car.
"This was one less thing I had to worry about," Burton said. "There's a tow truck here."
Turns out, there was cause for worry. The company, Vince's Towing, towed the car exactly seven-tenths of a mile to a garage on Penn Avenue. But when she tried to retrieve it three days later, Burton was re-traumatized.
She says owner Vince Fannick told her he'd keep the car unless the bill of $11,780 was paid.
"You're taking advantage of someone when they're vulnerable," Burton said. "I was confused. I didn't know what I was doing, and then you're charging me $11,000 to go less than a mile."
While never providing Burton an invoice, Fannick gave her insurance company a breakdown over the phone: $4,380 for the tow, a $4,250 recovery fee, a $1,200 gate fee, a $1,200 administrative fee and $195 a day in storage fees.
This is not an isolated case. A dozen invoices obtained by KDKA Investigates show these fees are standard operating procedure with Vince's Towing. KDKA-TV found the same fees charged in tow after tow amounting to total charges of $7,000, $8,000, $9,000, $10,000 and $11,000 for towing and related fees. But Vince's Towing is not alone.
KDKA-TV reported on it in the past. Towing operations listen to police scanners and race to accident scenes, basically taking cars and locking them up until the owners or their insurance companies pay up.
Pittsburgh Sgt. Detective Thomas Huerbin says police investigate and talk to operators like Vince's Towing, but absent any real regulations governing towing operations, Huerbin says there is no limit to what towing operators can charge, and police officers' hands are tied.
"He understands our feelings on what the fees are and the short distances that he's taking the vehicles and charging them," Huerbin said. "But there's nothing we can do about that independently."
KDKA-TV tried for days to speak with Fannick at his garage but could never find him there. KDKA-TV finally contacted him by phone and he declined an on-camera interview but said he is complying with all laws and is merely covering his expenses.
"It's justified what I'm doing," he said. "I do everything by the book. Everything legal. Tow trucks have gone through the roof, the gas, the insurance, and how about the risk? This is not cheap. Am I not supposed to be paid?"
Fannick went on to say that he does not charge the accident victim but only bills insurance companies. Still, Burton says that doesn't make it right.
"I feel like he stole my car," she said.
After a stalemate with the insurance company, Fannick agreed to reduce Burton's bill and released the car to her insurance company for $10,280.
"I feel very unfortunate about this whole situation," Burton said. "And I just want it to stop. I don't want him to keep doing this to people."
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