There it is, that sinking feeling in your stomach when you return to your parking spot, only to find your car is gone. Was it stolen? Did you forget where you parked? Or was it towed? In the final case, you may not know where your car has been taken, how much it will cost to get it back, or what legal protections you have.
Consumer protections for towing vary greatly by state, and sometimes, by municipality. Whether your car was towed, or you want to be prepared for a predatory tow by learning your rights, here are 7 tips to protect yourself:
- Learn your rights: U.S. PIRG’s new search tool will answer questions about your state’s consumer protection laws for towing. This will help you recognize predatory or illegal towing practices. Any state laws are the minimum protection you should expect. Many municipalities have stronger protections on certain aspects of towing, such as maximum rates or whether you must be notified.
- Contact the local police department: Some states require towing companies to notify the police if your car was towed for parking improperly or illegally. A call to the local law enforcement’s non-emergency number can help you find your car quickly in those cases.
- Review all charges: If you’re given a bill, read it very closely. If you’re not given one, ask for it. However, not all states require towing companies to provide an itemized bill. Allowable rates and charges for towing vary significantly by state. Some locations set maximum rates, or prohibit charges for the first 24 hours of storage. Depending on the state, common overcharges can include demanding a “drop fee” for releasing an incomplete tow, exceeding fixed rates, or charging extra to access personal items in your vehicle. You’ll want to make sure the charges match what you legally owe.
- Dispute any damages: Every state has a department that’s responsible for addressing cases of predatory towing practices or damages to vehicles during the towing or storage process. In many states, you could receive a full reimbursement or even additional compensation for an illegal or careless tow.
- Be proactive: Try to avoid a day-wrecking tow. Pay attention to signs in private or public parking lots and on city streets. Note how long you can be parked in a retail area and whether a city may restrict parking on public streets when, for example, there’s snowfall exceeding two inches or on certain days for street cleaning.
- Make a call: If your vehicle breaks down, won’t start or has a flat tire, either on private or public property, put a big note on your dashboard or under your windshield wiper (or both) and notify someone that you’re having car trouble and you’re getting help. If you’re on a public street, call the non-emergency number of the local law enforcement department. If you’re on private property, notify a manager of the store, restaurant, etc and get their name.
- Update your information: This is important. If you moved or changed phone numbers since you last renewed your vehicle registration, make sure your state department of motor vehicles has your current contact information. These would be the records law enforcement would access if your vehicle is towed or found stolen and abandoned.
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.