Cover Story: Towing the Line

The tow-truck industry is out of control. Will the city intervene?

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Aug. 24, 2010

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“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Kenney reviewed the 96 operators on the rotation list this summer and found many with outdated or invalid towing licenses.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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Josh said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 09:57AM

“Excellent reporting. Especially disturbed by the account of Otterson II. Here's his facebook profile:

www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Otterson-II/100001362560577

"Mike Otterson II Got traffic court tomorrow for driving over a 100plus on 42 thank god for knowing really good lawyers. WTF...."”

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2. Joe said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 01:33PM

“Typical day in Bullydelphia...place should be nuked.”

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3. GavinM3 said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 01:37PM

“Great article!!!! Well written and researched.

Hopefully this article shines some light on all of the towing corruption that goes on in Philly. These high school-dropout towtruck drivers get to be judge and jury every night while your car is held ransom.

Some of my friends in the 'burbs refuse to visit Philly simply due to the parking and towing situation. This problem needs to be addressed!

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 03:40PM

“This is shocking. I went on to southphillytowing.com (Otterson's company), they clearly state that they are open 24 hours a day but told Barry that they were closed when he wanted to pick up his car the night of the towing. I hope that people who are looking for a tow truck by choice (i.e. a breakdown) boycott South Philly Towing. Good on you Philly Weekly for this excellent piece of journalism and shame on you tow-truckers.”

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5. mufffin said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 03:46PM

“I hope it does kill the industry and all the towers go hungry. . .that would make me really happy actually.”

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6. Shawn said... on Aug 26, 2010 at 10:56AM

“WMMR's Morning Show "Preston and Steve" spent several days talking about this the day after the fire and shooting. Its good that other media outlets are getting involved, perhaps the city and the businesses themselves will feel some pressure and start working to fix things. Philly gets enough of a black eye with things, we really don't need one more to add to the list. My suggestion to anyone who's had this problem is to start using the media. Call the radio, newspapers and TV stations. Start a Facebook page, see if all of you can band together. If you simply give up, nothing will ever be changed. One of my favorite sayings is "the squeaky wheel gets grease".”

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7. MORTON TOWING said... on Aug 26, 2010 at 09:14PM

“Well written Aaron,
The only down side that I read is that the PPA have been braught into this rotational towing. They as a municipality, have no business taking business from honest towers. It seems that they will eventually take over the industry, which is illegal. But your article was informing and well written.”

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8. Mike Otterson said... on Aug 29, 2010 at 01:54PM

“I usually try not to respond to the negative comments left online, but in this case I will make an exception. Without getting into all the he said she said stuff, let me first say that unfortunately you can not trust that everyone interprets a situation exactly the same, I'm sure that the Schwartz's really do believe that there side of this story is the way that they recollect what happened. But through the years of doing a good bit of Parking Enforcement I can absolutely tell you that the customers version of what happened is always quit different than what actually occurred. The statement I made in this article about no one taking 100% responsibility for there actions is accurate, we at SOUTH PHILLY TOWING take pride in the fact that we would never touch a car that was even questionable, not to mention the fact that when there is an event going on down by the stadiums the Police presents is overwhelming, and they scrutinize everything that is going on down there, so if in fact the Schwartz's did park on the other side of the street I assure you that we would not have touched there vehicle. The business owners complaint in that area is that some of the people that park down there end up trashing their property and also prohibit the tractor trailers from being able to deliver there goods, this is why we get the pleasure of performing this service for them, it is always the case that the people we end up towing say that they are not the ones that are doing this, but unfortunately the people that do, ruin it for everyone. As far as telling them that they could not retrieve their vehicle that night, my son was the one on the phone with them and they became very belligerent so he warned them that they would give up their right to pickup their vehicle till the next day if they continued, and they continued so he told them that they had to come the next day. It has been our experience that when given the opportunity of time people have a tendency to calm down, this did not happen in the Schwartz's case, when they showed up the next day they were still belligerent, to the point that when one of my drivers showed up to release the vehicle to them Mrs Schwartz immediately jump in his face calling him names and cursing at him, that driver did not want to disrespect her so he called one of my other drivers who was able to handle the situation, as far as saying I know where you live b##ch, that was not the way it was said, they were threatening our property and we occasionally have to remind the customer that they just provided us with positive ID for who we released the vehicle to so we do in fact know where you live, not as a threat but to say IF anything was to happen we will let the police know. As far as the neighborhood being a demilitarized zone, I take offense to that because I personally don't think it is that bad considering that I grew up in that area, and my mother in-law owns a luncheonette on the corner of the block that has been in her family for over 60 years, I would not go as far to say that its a perfect neighborhood it does has it's faults, but it's better than other neighborhoods I visited, and I still wouldn't slander them either. The thing is I truly do understand what the Schartz's went through at that time and I'm sympathetic to their situation, but unfortunately this is one of the many services that we provide as a company, and we do our best to give all of our customers the best service we can. (In this case the customer would have been the property owner) As far as the other negative accounts on the internet, most of them are people that were parked illegally and were towed, they were not happy from the get go, no further explanation should be needed. It is and never will be my intention to give the towing industry a black eye and I sincerely apologize to any one who thinks that we may have, all that I feel that I am guilty of is trying to provide the best service in a very competitive city.

Thank you for listening,
Mike Otterson
SOUTH PHILLY TOWING
mickeyott@southphillytowing.com”

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9. tnieves said... on Aug 31, 2010 at 01:08PM

“we're talking about philly here. nothing will never ever get done or "back on track".”

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10. Anonymous said... on Nov 9, 2010 at 08:25PM

“does anyone know of top notch towing 25 &moore sts. My car was towed by them. They are closed now,phone disconnected.And they have my car. I dont know how to get in touch with them.The insurance adjuster wants to see the car.”

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11. T - owed said... on Dec 29, 2010 at 04:45PM

“I attended the Eagles game on tuesday night with my son and had the same thing happen ! Then the company said they had pictures of me tailgating and destroying there sign ,then upon further investigation I found they have a money maker with the spots they tow from ( they take the sign down before the events and post them when the spots are full so they can tow vehicles !! To top it all off the 911 dispatcher and police on the seen do not even help while you are trying to figure out if your car is stolen or towed until after the car release time at midnight when you can not get your vehicle until 9 am with a 2 day storage fee !! I can not prove it but I think they have someone on the police force that helps them hold your car hostage for our cash only they say on the phone STILL..”

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12. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2011 at 01:23PM

“Manton is easily the worst of the lot. The business is run by a sociopath with no remorse for his crimes. Scum like Manton give the whole industry a bad name. Most of the scum in the business specialize in 'patrol towing' and the more unethical ones like tow squad use spotters in parking lots. Whenever I see spotters I call the police and tell them there is a shady looking character using drugs, smoking pot or taking pictures of little kids. Works every time1 Once the spotter had warrants and was hauled away in handcuffs! Made my whole day.”

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13. AVOID said... on Feb 25, 2014 at 04:53PM

“Saw the report about the towing situation in Philly last nite. Simply victimizing tactics are employed. My applause to Mr. Otterson. You seem very articulate for strong arm criminal. You and those like you tear at the fabric of decency for which it seems there is merely a thread left. Repulsive. Poor you and you're predatory methods. You take people's property, leave them stranded in an unsafe city, then extort cash knowing you've got them by the balls. Legit my ass. Are they "customers" to you or prey. Karma to all you bastards who extract a living from your fellow citizens "legally" or "illegally", and to all those who look the other way. Shits too fucked up to believe anymore. Those who visit the city are careful not to park illegally. As they are aware of the consequences. Now visitors to the city can get towed regardless? Nice warm welcome to our city of OTHERLY LOVE!!!”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 6, 2014 at 12:29PM

“I for one will never go to Philadelphia again. My vehicle was parked legally, but towed as it supposedly encroached onto a handicapped spot. Unscrupulous tow operators have caused me to be outspoken against the City of Philadelphia in general. I make a point to tell my story to MANY people. Watching their city's reputation deteriorate and the effects that has on tourism and taxes are the only thing that may make them notice. Then again, from what I understand, this is just business as usual for these people. I'll be getting my Philly Cheesesteaks somewhere else...”

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