She was towed for the wrong reason, then stuck with a $500 bill
Kate Devries-Thomas was on a business trip when her loan company called with a frightening question: Had she abandoned her car?
Devries-Thomas soon learned that her apartment complex had hired a towing company to remove her Honda Civic from its parking space for an expired registration. The car had been sitting unclaimed at a tow yard for days.
There was just one problem, the 24-year-old Surprise resident recalled.
"My car had been registered," she said. "I had the updated sticker and everything."
Even though Devries-Thomas said she showed R&M Towing proof of valid registration when she returned to Arizona, the Phoenix company wouldn't release the car without payment.
The company has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau and is one of the lowest rated tow companies on Yelp.
"They ended up charging me $500 or $600," Devries-Thomas said of the December 2016 incident. "I had to go to work. I had no idea what to do. It was, 'Let me just pay this and be done.' "
To add insult to injury, the car's floor mats were gone and the splash guard was damaged, she recalled. Devries-Thomas didn't realize that towers are not liable for damage once drivers leave the storage lot with the car.
R&M Towing also did not provide an itemized receipt, Devries-Thomas said, so she later realized it would be difficult to fight the fees.
"I felt helpless," she said. "I wasn't even in the wrong in this situation. ... I've worked in customer service my entire life, and that's not the way to do it. ... It's a dirty way to treat somebody."
R&M Towing Manager Michael Harvey said he remembered Devries-Thomas' complaint about floor mats but denied employees took them, noting the company has plenty of junked cars to provide parts.
He has worked to improve professionalism at the company since taking over three years ago, Harvey said.
"We try to be meticulous about everything we do. ... We try to do the right thing and treat (customers) with respect," he said. But "we're always made out to be the bad guy."
Charging bogus fees is one way predatory tow companies drive up costs for drivers, according to Bob Passmore, assistant vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
American car-insurance rates are inflated by as much as $616 million a year because of unnecessary fees charged for towing cars from accidents, the association estimated.
A 2018 association survey ranked Arizona sixth worst in the country for abusive towing practices. Phoenix was the ninth most predatory U.S. city.
"The most problematic (issue) is the little, miscellaneous fees that appear to be made up," Passmore said. "The administration fee, the gate fee. Some tow companies will charge people to move the car to get their personal effects."
Another common problem is difficulty accessing and releasing cars because towers are open for limited hours, require excessive documentation, charge for inspection or other ploys.
But a proposal at the Arizona Legislature could crack down on bad towing behavior.
The compromise between insurers and towers passed the Arizona House of Representatives last week 55 to one. It now goes to the Senate.
Under House Bill 2306, towing companies responding to car accidents would have to:
- Take the vehicle to the closest storage lot.
- Allow the car owner to retrieve personal items, and insurance employees to inspect the vehicle for damage, for free.
- Provide an itemized receipt upon request and not add fees until it is produced.
- Release the vehicle as soon as fees are paid.
- Stay open or have an employee on call from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday except holidays.
Additionally, the bill would allow the Arizona Attorney General, as well as car owners, to take action in court against towers.
"You need some kind of remedy if you've been wronged," Passmore said. "If you're the poor soul whose car winds up in one of these predicaments, your'e stuck in this limbo."
The Arizona Professional Towing and Recovery Association initially opposed the bill but negotiated additions, such as requiring insurance companies to use a standard form to request a release.
Angela Barnett, executive director of the towing association, said it's a decent compromise.
These metro Phoenix towing companies have a BBB rating below D and fewer than two Yelp Stars:
- Alliance Towing
- Charity Towing
- Monster Towing
- R&M Towing
Joe Zielinski, a 32-year-old business owner from Mesa, had his car towed last May near Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe. The nightlife hub is a towing hot spot.
When Zielinski went to the storage yard, he said, Go Towing wouldn't release the vehicle without payment, violating the state's lien law.
Arizona statutes allow drivers to retrieve a car from a tow yard and pay the bill later, if the vehicle was towed from a private lot.
Zielinski called the police and Go Towing relented, he recalled.
But weeks after Zielinski paid his bill, a Go Towing employee told him on Facebook there was no receipt and threatened him with collections if he didn't pay again.
Go Towing required Zielinski to pay with cash, a violation of a Tempe ordinance that requires tow companies to take debit and credit cards with no processing fee. Some cities, like Tempe, regulate towing companies more strictly than the state.
"It was pretty shady. They basically got an extra few bucks out of me," Zielinski said.
He doesn't think stricter rules like HB 2306 would help.
"The biggest thing is how would they police it? Because it's not really being enforced with them now," Zielinski said.
But Corie Owens, 26, a recent Arizona State University graduate, supports the proposal after her own towing nightmare.
Her aunt's car was towed in 2016 from a Subway parking lot in downtown Tempe, where the aunt frequently picked up Owens from school.
Signs in the lot said parking was for customers only. So while waiting inside Subway for Owens to arrive, her aunt would usually buy something, Owens said.
One day, a Go Towing operator arrived, asked several people in the restaurant out of earshot of the aunt if the car was theirs and left with the car, Owens said.
'You should be grateful'
Once Owens and her aunt discovered the vehicle gone, the restaurant manager called Go Towing company to demand its return, Owens remembered.
The tow operator did return the car. But his rudeness was shocking, she said.
"He started saying, 'You should have been paying attention. You should be grateful I brought it back. I could have still charged you,'" Owens said. "He was in our faces, and he was kind of this big guy. We were just two women, and it felt like he was trying to use that against us."
An attorney for Go Towing did not return requests for comment. The company is not rated by the Better Business Bureau. It has 1.5 stars out of five on Yelp, which features numerous customer complaints.
Owens said she hopes the legislation can help others avoid the hassle of bad towers.
"I don't think anyone should go through this again," Owens said.