Chicago aldermen moved Wednesday to corral the “Wild West” of rogue tow truck drivers who rush to accident scenes, snare damaged vehicles and hold them hostage until rattled motorists pay exorbitant fees.
One month after putting on the brakes, the City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection approved a revised 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.
Last month, License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) demanded more time to consider AAA’s request for a waiver that could excuse the motor club from record-keeping requirements that would slow down AAA towing operations.
Ald. David Moore (17th) raised concerns about the impact on city contractors.
That prompted Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) to amend the ordinance he championed to satisfy their concerns.
“AAA didn’t want to be responsible for individual towing contractors. So, [I] struck that. If you’re a city vendor, you won’t have to pay the license. However, if you have other vehicles that are not working on the city contract, those vehicles would have to pay the license,” Villegas said.
“We had language regarding what would be prohibited for someone getting a license. We struck misdemeanor and just kept it at felony to keep it consistent with how [Business Affairs and Consumer Protection] licenses people in the booting industry.”
With those changes, the License Committee approved the ordinance tailor-made to prevent “rampant” abuses by “rogue” towing companies that “take advantage of rattled vehicle owners” by appearing unsolicited at accident scenes.
“We need this industry policed because it’s just been the Wild West for the past few decades. We’re the second-worst in the country as it relates to rogue towers. I’m trying to address this before we get to No. 1,” Villegas said.
“We have an industry here that … is filled with organized crime. They’re running around the city, speeding to crash sites, intimidating people in accidents. In some cases, even shooting at one another. There’s no accountability.”
Last month, Sgt. Keith Blair of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Auto Theft Unit called towing abuses 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 [making] other promises that they never fulfill. And they end up holding these cars hostage,” Blair said on that day.
“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 amounting to thousands of dollars.
“Even if you wanted to pay to get your vehicle released, you can’t even pay with a credit card. You have to pay with cash,” Villegas said.
“Rental car companies have had vehicles stolen and held hostage by these rogue towers demanding thousands of dollars. Even if a rental car company wanted to pay for the ransom, they couldn’t pay with a check. They had to pay in cash. They had to hire a third party, since they don’t deal with cash. It’s the Wild West.”
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.”