Beware The Tow Truck Pirates

This ’05 KNBC investigation uncovered a rogue industry of pirate tow truck drivers in Southern California. A system of spotters kept watch for any driver who left the premises attached to a parking lot, and got paid $25-50 for calling in targets. In some cases, drivers were gone from their cars for less than 15 minutes.

If they wanted their car back, drivers were shaken down for $180-$250, either on the spot or at the company’s impound, payable only in cash. What’s amazing is that the stores aren’t even aware that the towing is going on.

There’s one reason to hold on to your receipt. Only with dogged persistence and showing the receipt to prove they were patronizing the business whose parking lot it were citizens able to dissuade tow truck drivers from taking their car – provided they were caught in the act.

Park At Your Own Risk
Tow Truck Pirates
(Photo: Getty)


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  1. torqueU says:

    Heh- I took my car back from an impound lot after it was towed way back in college. Longish story but it ends with me driving through a gate that was closing and then pulling away from a stop sign with a guy running after me yelling for me to ‘stop’. As if.

  2. lestat730 says:

    So these guys are going to be charged and prosecuted for something right?

  3. consumer_999 says:

    WTF? If the stores have that kind of policy, then that’s one thing. But if the stores aren’t even aware it’s going on, screw the receipt and screw paying. Call the police on the towing firm. They’re not given free license to steal whatever car they want for reasons they decide. See ya in court, bub; you’ll be paying legal fees, damages, and punitive costs.

  4. DeeJayQueue says:

    I thought it was a law (maybe just a local law) that if you caught the driver in the act and told him to drop it, they had to.

  5. who knew tow truck drivers could be so clever.

  6. Meg Marco says:

    Hey, hey, tow ’em away…

  7. Hambriq says:

    I can actually unironically say, “That’s like, so fucking 2005”.

  8. cef21 says:

    If you catch them in the act, just climb into the car. In most places it’s illegal to tow a vehicle with anybody in it. The driver may piss and moan, but every minute he’s sitting there arguing with you is another minute he’s not towing somebody else. If he starts to drive off anyway, call 911 on the cell.

  9. tasselhoff76 says:

    That was happening in Florida (Miami) too. It likely still does. Often times, the “spotters” are homeless and/or poor.

  10. GearheadGeek says:

    Thieving scum. If they tow your car from the lot of a store you’re patronizing and you’re parked in accordance with the stores terms (e.g. requiring you to be shopping there, setting a time limit, etc.) and the tow truck takes your car, they’re guilty of theft. JUST as guilty of theft as a repo driver who takes the wrong car. There are certainly tow drivers who are upstanding citizens providing a valuable service, but they’re not the thieving scum who’re doing this and just begging to become targets (as in “target practice” targets.)

  11. PDQ2 says:

    When I was a kid living at the beach in OC they used to do that a lot. People would come to the beach with their kids and all their beach chairs/umbrellas and crap, park in the supermarket/strip center parking lot and go to the beach for the day. They never shopped at any of the stores in the center, nor did they intend to. They just couldn’t find a place to park on the street on the Balboa Peninsula. (I also had a friend who lived in a house on the sand. Left his garage door open while he ran to the store real quick and came back to find someone parked IN his GARGAGE – no kidding!)

    The owner of the center’s parking lot had contracted with the local tow company and it was all above board. If you park on private property, you’re subject to the property owner’s rules.

    Oh, and my friend had great fun telling the dimwit who parked in his garage that his car had been towed when he came back at the end of the day looking for it. He never again left his garage door open when he ran to the store though.

  12. scoopy says:

    @PDQ2: I live at the beach too and one day I left my front door open and this guy PARKED HIS MOTORCYLE IN MY LIVINGROOM!!! Needless to say I was pretty upset.

  13. JB Segal says:

    Exactly what I was going to …sing…

    For everyone else:

  14. forgeten says:

    @DeeJayQueue: In Raleigh Nc atleast , thats not the case. Its like a 50$ dropping fee or something. Of course before they passed that law it was whatever the tow truck driver wanted you to pay so its as step in the right direction.

    In regards to the story though , the same thing goes on here. Once there was a guy was a guy hiding in the bushes with a walkie talkie a few blocks from my house. Which was amusing

  15. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    They post up at the Panera Bread on Lincoln in Marina Del Rey. The Panera lot has 1 hour parking for retail shops and pay parking for people visiting the courthouse upstairs from the retail shops. The little rent-a-cop/parking attendant is at your car before you can shut off the engine, jotting down your plates numbers and marking your tires, and the tow trucks wait across the street at the Cheveron station. When someone stays 1 minute more than an hour, the attendant waves to the tow truck guy and he’s at your car in a flash. One guy was standing next to his car and the tow truck had blocked him in and would not allow him to leave. He called to cops and they made the tow truck move.

  16. aparsons says:

    This bullshit goes on in Pittsburgh all the time. Howard’s Towing continually trolls the University of Pittsburgh campus for illegally parked cars (regardless of location). Then, they race to get the car up on the truck and just wait around for the owner. Once the owner shows up, they act like THEY ARE DOING THEM A FAVOR by offering to take their car off the truck…. for $150.

    It happened to me… twice. And I say to the guy “look, $150 isn’t a lot to me. You can tow it and I’ll pick it up on your lot.”

    Then, the price drops to $20 cash. Why? Because the tow truck driver is going to pocket that money without ever reporting it to the owner. If they tow it to the lot, it has to be reported to the owner and the driver only gets his $5.25 an hour.

  17. Yeah, similar sentiments here, I’m pretty sure this isn’t isolated to Southern California.

    A few years back I met with my girlfriend and her family at a Red Lobster, and, as Red Lobsters go, the place was packed and parking was tight. Her dad drove separately and when he arrived, someone directed him and 4 other cars to park in a lot right next to the restaurant. He assumed it was either a Red Lobster employee or just a courteous bystander. Turns out, after dinner, his and the 4 other cars got towed.

    The ‘courteous bystander’ was indeed a driver for the tow company employed by the lot, and they had 5 trucks waiting a block away. My girlfriend’s dad also noted after-the-fact that the guy was conveniently directing traffic while standing in front of, and blocking the “No Parking: Violators will be towed by ABC Towing Co.” sign. It was his word against the towing company’s, so he just ended up paying the $200 or whatever to get his car back.

    I’m pretty confident that anybody who goes into the Towing Industry is a slease ball.

  18. aparsons says:

    Sorry for the double post. In Pittsburgh, restaurants actually need a license to tow vehicles from their lots. According to [THIS ARTICLE], someone had their car towed from a restaurant and fought it because the restaurant didn’t have the appropiate permit to tow vehicles.

  19. lincolnparadox says:

    My question is, lets say that you do buy something from Store A, and park in their lot. If you pop over to Starbuck’s or whatever and grab something and return to find your car gone, could you charge the tow company with Grand Theft Auto? Technically, you are an immediate customer of Store A, and you even have the receipt to prove it. Could you just dial 911 and charge the tow truck guy?

    It would be kind of awesome if you could.

  20. Buran says:

    @lestat730: Say, grand theft auto. You bet I’d be pressing charges.

  21. edebaby says:

    The McDonalds next to where I work here in Chicago has a spotter out there all the time.
    There is an Illinois unemployment office in the lot next door to McD’s, and people park in McD’s lot all the time and walk over to the unemployment office. As soon as the spotter see’s the driver walk over to the unemployment office, he calls in the tow on a radio.
    Talk about adding insult to injury…

    Of course, it would be just as easy for the spotter to just tell the people he will tow their car if they leave the lot, but he doesn’t. Because he is scum.

  22. magus_melchior says:

    @dave511: I sense an upcoming article…

  23. FreePirateBobblehead says:

    This towing company got itself into a lot of trouble, with its customers and a judge.

    “Under a restraining order issued last Thursday in D.C. Superior Court, “Youngin’s shall be prohibited from all towing, except instances where they have an explicit agreement in advance with the owner of the vehicle to be towed.””

  24. Beerad says:

    My own most absurd towing experience: I visited my brother at college once in Columbus, Ohio. My brother didn’t have a car, so I parked in his allotted space at his apartment parking lot. The next morning my car had vanished. Called the police to report it stolen only to find it had been towed. Why was the car towed if it was legitimately parked in the right place? Because the towing company drives around looking for cars with license plates from other counties and tows them on the “assumption” that the car doesn’t belong there.

    Thank you Shamrock Towing, famous jerkwads of Columbus! Gee, they were nice enough not to charge us for the tow and we only had to waste half a day tracking down the car and getting a ride to the tow lot.

  25. JiminyChristmas says:

    I’ve seen this happen in a McDonald’s parking lot in Minneapolis as well; the one on 5th St. right by the University of Minnesota. In that case though, there was a spotter and tow truck there at the request of the business during the lunch hours.

    IANAL, but I don’t think a towing company can ‘freelance’. If a car is illegally parked on private property, and a store or restaurant parking lot is private property, then a tow can’t happen unless the property owner asks the tow truck onto the property to remove the car.

  26. lanec says:

    If you love tow truck drivers that want to make a buck in any way possible then I reckon you should come visit Cincinnati Ohio. I go to college here and the tow truck drivers here are ruthless blood sucking thieves who not only ruin cars (seen it twice) but will nearly run students over if they get in the way.

  27. MrEvil says:

    Here where I live, if a business has a tow away policy for non-patrons, they have to have a sign with the name of the their contracted towing company in addition to warning you. Keeps this type of crap from happening. The exceptions are for stuff like parking in a handicap space or in a fire lane.

    However, if a crafty tow truck driver decides to pull this BS, as others have said, just dive on into the seat. You cannot have an occupied vehicle in tow under any circumstance in TX, weather or not you’re a professional tow truck.

  28. bearymore says:

    The LA Times had an article about this a few days ago. Here’s a link to the part discussing towing regulations:


  29. Syrenia says:

    @lincolnparadox: In College Station TX (Texas A&M), the Northgate-area restaurant lot spotters would have you towed if you did not walk directly into the restaurant. A friend was towed after detouring by the ATM on his way in to the restaurant.

  30. SOhp101 says:

    I thought they had to have signs warning you about this? Well that’s the case here in Los Angeles.

  31. Trackback says:

    Jillian: A couple years ago, Koga posted about about bad tow truck drivers in the L.A. area. He also followed up with an update on the article, which included great tips for fighting a corrupt tow truck. However, two years later, the madness hasn’t ended.

  32. Buran says:

    @magus_melchior: Yes, I want to hear this story too. Unlawful detainment is not the way to follow up after you’re caught stealing cars.

  33. Buran says:

    @bearymore: not found…

  34. Mr. Gunn says:

    They’re pirates, alright. I once had a tow truck run me off the road into a barrier and then back up and offer me a tow. To his “brother’s” body shop.

    “whose parking lot it were citizens able to”
    Had to read that twice…

  35. ChristopherDavis says:

    There was a run of predatory towing cases in Seattle a few years ago, leading to a series of articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and at least one towing company losing their license.

  36. ChristopherDavis says:

    @Buran: Here’s the corrected link for the LA Times story that bearymore mentioned.

    In particular, it seems that the CA regulations include “[t]owing companies must accept credit cards, not only cash, as payment.” This means not having to find an ATM at midnight, and will leave the car’s owner more room for dispute after the fact as well.

  37. toddkravos says:

    This shit happens all the time in the Cleveland/Lakewood Ohio area.