The tow-truck industry is out of control. Will the city intervene?
“Someone is gonna get killed and it’s gonna be a bystander.”
Parente, 59, has been in the towing business for 25 years. His hands—cracked, scarred, and ground with permanent grease stains—reveal a man who’s spent a lifetime working with cars. His office is littered with tools of the trade, physical tools but also paperwork and computer equipment necessary to running a business that complies with the jumble of the city regulations. Outside, a white German Shepherd named Czar lies under the tow-truck, napping before going on guard duty for the night.
“Hopefully this whole industry will get back on track,” Parente says strolling his yard, filled with cars in varying states of disrepair, from nearly pristine to burnt-out rust covered husks. On each vehicle, chalk marks the date it came in and whether it was stolen or abandoned.
Morton’s is one of nine towing operators in the city’s program to remove stolen and abandoned vehicles from the streets. City officials say that program works well, and it was the original basis of the rotational program for cars disabled by accidents. Though the legislation was signed into law in 2005, bureaucratic obstacles blocked implementation until 2008, and even then the system didn’t work right.
Kenney reviewed the 96 operators on the rotation list this summer and found many with outdated or invalid towing licenses. “They have no license, no tax, who’s checking that?” he says. Nineteen of the companies on the list have complaints and violations filed against them, Kenney says. L&I disputes his findings, but the councilman wants to turn all accident towing over to the nine towers on the stolen and abandoned list until the rest can be verified to be in compliance.
“Anyone who wants to tow can be on this list,” Parente says. “L&I just threw it out there.”
L&I is also responsible for enforcing the illegal-parking regulations, but an audit by the Controller’s Office released last year found that not only were companies still overcharging and requiring that customers pay in cash, but that “all major towing operators in the city advertise fees in excess of what is allowable by the City Code.” The audit cited eight companies—George Smith, Lew Blum, Mystical, Steven’s, Manton, A Bob’s, Universal, and Todd’s—that accounted for 84 percent of the city’s private tows over a three-month period in 2008 and found that all the major operators were only accepting cash.
“We’re not investigators,” says Mike Maenner, L&I’s director of operations. “There’s really little if any proof. If we’re going to take somebody’s livelihood away, we have to be more than certain we have good legal standing.” He says L&I did order three cease notices this year to companies who were illegally operating out of vacant lots.
More surprisingly, Maenner says L&I cannot force operators to take credit cards. Technically, the city ordinance only requires the companies to have a working credit card scanner, not that they use it. “The method of payment is not our jurisdiction,” he says.
L&I does go after signs advertising illegal rates, says Maenner, and has processed 213 violations this year. “We give them 35 days to correct the signage,” he says. “Most of them complied.” If they don’t, L&I can bring them to court. However, despite L&I’s efforts, signs labeled with illegally high fees persist. Advertisements of $175 per tow, $50 special equipment fees, and CASH ONLY are easy to find around the city.
In total, L&I has received only 24 towing-related complaints so far this year through the 311 system, but some people bypass 311 and go directly to the Police Department, Consumer Affairs or City Council members. Others just vent online.
The bulk of online grievances are aimed at George Smith. From Citysearch: “Car was towed one evening for supposedly illegal parking. I ended up being charged 235 bucks to get my car back. They picked my car up at like 9:30 pm, by 10 the next morning they charged me for two days storage when they hadn’t stored my car even 24 hrs. There are several charges listed that don’t make any sense, but when I tried to discuss the charges they tacked on 25 bucks more for “getting short with him”;” and “This place is scary. They take your car, with or without just cause, to an unlit, unmarked storage yard in the armpit of Philadelphia. Seriously, do not go alone to pick up your car. Oh, and it is $180 ... cash. I don’t know of any reputable business that only accepts cash. The people are absolute jerks. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do because you need your car. This is the definition of extortion.” Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
Internet accounts are also as unkind to South Philly Towing as the Schwartzes story. Ten of 12 reviews on Citysearch give the company one out of five stars, with comments like, “They prey on tourists visiting the italian market in south philly. They hide in parking lots that are not marked clearly about parking restrictions;” “the metal signs hanging all around the city and the one on the street where I parked, said $125 towing and x amount for storage—I was charged $200 towing and when I asked the fat slob told me that they are working on getting the signs updated;” “We were not parked illegally, but were told to call the police if we had a problem with the situation.”
One complaint was almost identical to Barry’s: “I recently parked on a street where aprox. 150 cars were parked. There were no signs posted and I was parked legally. After leaving a Phillys game at 12:00 am with my eight year old son I found my car to be missing.”
Once a driver falls prey to a tower and doles out the cash, it’s very difficult to recover because there’s no way to verify if the complaints are true. After retrieving his car Barry tried to get reparations through the city, but without hard evidence, he couldn’t prove exactly where he parked or that a threatening altercation actually occurred.
“No one takes 100 percent responsibility for their actions,” says Mike Otterson Sr., owner of South Philly Towing, referring to the allegations made by the Schwartzes. “No one says it’s an illegal spot.”
He adds: “I don’t know if my driver got belligerent with the people, I would be lying if I say it never happened. I tell all my guys … take a nonconfrontational attitude with people … but sometimes, people tend to push your buttons.”
“I apologize for any of that stuff.” Otterson says South Philly has been accepting credit cards since last year. “My main goal … is to be completely legitimate.”
Still looking for resolution, Schwartz called L&I to complain and was directed to Lance Haver, the city’s director of Consumer Affairs. “He said send a letter,” Barry said, so he sent a letter to South Philly Towing. He got no reply, tried following up with the city again and eventually gave up in disgust.
“If we’re able to get the call before the person actually gets the car we can negotiate down the price or make sure the company actually takes a credit card,” Haver says. However, since people need their cars and they don’t want to pay for extra storage days, they usually pay out first then look for resolution later.
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.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4