Chicago aldermen held a spirited debate Wednesday about launching an unprecedented local crackdown on rogue tow truck drivers who rush to accident scenes, snare damaged vehicles and hold them hostage until rattled motorists pay exorbitant fees.
The City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection did not vote on the ordinance that calls for the city to establish a first-ever license for tow truck operators, require a $250 license for every truck they use and license the locations where vehicles they tow are stored.
License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) and others want more time to consider AAA’s request for a waiver that could excuse the motor club from record-keeping requirements that would slow down the motor club’s towing operations.
Mitts said she wanted “more discussion to make sure we are all in agreement.” But it was apparent from the tone of the debate and the horror stories told about rampant towing abuses on Chicago streets that the crackdown championed by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) is coming.
“This is an effort to tackle an industry that’s just been out of control. Wild, wild west. Second-worst in the country,” a frustrated Villegas told his colleagues after Mitts insisted on holding the ordinance in committee. “At a time when people are being taken advantage of, this is not the time to hesitate…We need to get this done.”
Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno agreed it was high time for Chicago to get tough to prevent “rampant” abuses by “rogue” towing companies that appear unsolicited at accidents and “take advantage of rattled vehicle owners.”
“In some cases, resident vehicles have been held at ransom. … Owners are often forced to pay thousands to recover their vehicles. And in many cases, the vehicles may be left in random locations, difficult for our investigators to locate,” Escareno said.
Sgt. Keith Blair of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Auto Theft Unit described towing abuses as a “very serious problem” that has “overloaded” CPD and hampered its ability to investigate the number of vehicles towed illegally from crash scenes.
Many rogue tow-truck drivers monitor police and fire department radio frequencies, Blair said, often beating first responders to the scene.
“They’re using any method necessary to try and obtain control of an unsuspecting victim’s vehicle. Promising them free rental and other promises that they never fulfill. And they end up holding these cars hostage,” Blair said.
“They’re closely aligned in some areas with gangs. … Much like we see gang conflicts, we see gang conflicts among tow drivers as well.”
The ordinance also would prohibit certain acts, such as:
o Stopping “at or near” an accident scene or near a damaged or disabled vehicle to solicit the vehicle owner unless summoned to the scene by law enforcement, other city or state agencies or the vehicle owner or his or her representative.
o Making any false, misleading or threatening statements to the vehicle owner for the purpose of coercing the owner to engage the operator’s towing services, such as claiming to be affiliated with a government agency or insurance company that would cover the towing cost.
o Holding a towed vehicle against the owner’s will until the motorist agrees to pay a “ransom” fee that amounts to thousands of dollars to release it.
Five years ago, the tilted playing field between towing companies that snatch cars off Chicago streets and parking lots and motorists who own those vehicles got a bit more level.
The City Council approved a “towing bill of rights” in response to an avalanche of complaints about Lincoln Towing, the company made famous in the Steve Goodman song, “Lincoln Park Pirates.”
Then-Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) led the charge for the bill of rights just three months after a tense public hearing on the towing issue that featured a heated exchange between Pawar and Allen Perl, an attorney representing Protective Parking Services doing business as Lincoln Towing.