The tow-truck industry is out of control. Will the city intervene?
It’s a clear, chilly night in October and the Phillies have just shocked the Dodgers in the playoffs thanks to a two out, game winning double by Jimmy Rollins. Still high on the victory, Barry Schwartz and his wife Lisa walk the three long blocks back to where they parked their car on Lawrence Street, an industrial road lined with warehouses. Hundreds of fans park along the block from Pattison to Packer during ball games to avoid the fees at the stadium lots. Barry, who has a season ticket plan and has been going to Phillies games since the early ’70s, parks there every week and says he has never had a problem.
This night was different.
It was nearly midnight when the couple approached the now almost deserted street, but their 2003 Nissan Maxima was missing.
Lisa recalls the “bizarre gnawing” one gets in the pit of his or her stomach when “your car’s not there … you think, oh shit! It’s stolen.”
Barry and Lisa say they called the police, but the cops never showed. Finally, they noticed a sign on a fence across the street that read: “Illegally parked cars will be towed by South Philly Towing.” So they took a chance and called the tow company.
A man answered and confirmed that their Maxima had been towed to the South Philly lot.
A fruitless back and forth ensued. “Why’d you tow my car?” Barry asked. He says the man kept saying, “There’s a sign.”
“I’m looking at the sign,” Barry responded. “It wasn’t parked illegally. You stole my car.”
The man on the phone told them he was closed, they’d have to pick up the car the next day, and hung up.
Stranded, the Schwartzes were forced to take a $113 taxi ride back to their house in Doylestown.
The next day, the couple headed down to South Philly Towing’s lot, a razor-wire guarded facility just off Grey’s Ferry Avenue near the I-76 overpass in a deserted back alley, surrounded by weed choked, trash strewn vacant lots and burned out houses. “It was like the demilitarized zone,” says Lisa.
There, Barry and Lisa say they met the man on the phone, South Philly Towing manager Mike Otterson II. The situation quickly deteriorated once he told them they had to cough up $210 in cash—$150 for the tow, two days storage, and a 20 percent storage tax—in order to retrieve their vehicle. A stunned Barry continued to insist that his car had been parked legally, and protested the cash payment—tow-truck companies are required by law to accept credit cards.
Lisa recounts saying, “We’ve done some checking, what you’ve done is absolutely illegal.”
Then, they say Otterson became physically threatening. “He got right in my face … finger in my face. He said, 'Bitch, back off,'” Lisa says.
“The guy was huge. He could have destroyed me,” says Barry “He was big, tattooed; a very large, menacing person.”
“The whole thing was like out of a movie,” he adds.
Facing the threat of violence and loss of their car, the Schwartzes finally agreed to pay the $210, in cash. But even then, their ordeal continued. Lisa says Otterson demanded to see Barry’s driver’s license before releasing the car, wrote down the information, and said to her, “Now I know where you live, bitch.”
“It was harrowing and frustrating and aggravating,” Lisa says. “You just kind of shake your head, you know?”
It was the Schwartzes’ first time dealing with a tow-truck company, but for decades Philly’s tow-truck industry has operated with rampant impunity and is riddled with tales of operators towing cars at will; charging motorists exorbitant fees; and wild, aggressive tow drivers, known as wreck chasers, racing through the city looking for work.
Private tow-truck drivers are fed up with an ever-changing web of inconsistently enforced city regulations. They’re angry about the constant specter of the Philadelphia Parking Authority threatening to elbow in on their business. And they’re pissed off that media always portrays them as the bad guys.