One of the most disturbing scenes for a driver or a car owner has to be the sight of his or her car being towed away by a tow truck. These tow trucks have their place and their jobs. They are supposed to tow away cars that are illegally parked or parked in such a way that they are hazardous to the public.

But in Southern California, motorists, prosecutors and lawmakers are seeing evidence that some towing companies are going too far. According to a New York Times article, tow trucks are “on the prowl” for unsuspecting motorists and their vehicles.

Towing is considered predatory when:

– A tow operator will only accept cash to release a vehicle

– A vehicle has been towed without authorization from the property owner or manager

– The tow operator has no permit to tow vehicles

Predatory towing may also include a demand to pay a parking ticket that has not been issued by a government entity.

The Times article gives the example of a Hollywood church’s pickup truck used to deliver goods to the needy that was towed from its own parking lot. In another case, a 4-year-old boy was towed away in his mother’s car when she stepped away for a minute to drop off grocery bags and another child. Another egregious example – a man, who was run over and killed by a tow truck after he ran alongside the tow truck, pleading with the driver to get his car back. That man was first run over by the tow truck and then his own Chevy Suburban.

How do predatory towers victimize drivers? First they charge exorbitant release fees and then they demand that those large payments (hundreds of dollars) be made in cash. There have also been many instances where cars are parked in dark alleys unattended and end up getting struck by another car or damaged by the tow truck driver.

Such complaints against illegal towing are piling up at the state, local and federal level, not just in California, but across the nation. However, Southern California with its unique driving culture and abundance of vehicles is an ideal playing ground for predatory towing.

The Los Angeles Police Department recently conducted sting operations to catch these towers. The city attorney’s office, earlier this year, filed criminal misdemeanor charges against three towing companies. According to the Times article, one of the owners was sentenced to 240 days in jail, community service and was ordered to pay about $15,000 in restitution to 35 victims.

Towing is regulated in a limited way by many states and cities. The Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 stated that towers were “interstate carriers” and were subject only to federal law unless it involved public safety issues. Based on that law, a federal appellate court in 2000 voided a California law that mandated that towers needed authorization from a property owner or property manager to authorize a tow.

This decision led to an increase in towers policing parking lots and removing cars at their discretion. Thankfully, a new highway bill that was passed earlier this year allows states to revert back to the original system and require that property owners authorize and are present during each tow. That amendment was also sponsored by Senator Christopher Cox of California. The child-towing incident occurred in Garden Grove, part of Cox’s district.

But in some cases, predatory towing companies are trying to find other ways to victimize vehicle owners. Recently, the Orange County District Attorney brought felony charges against a tow truck driver and an apartment complex security guard, who was authorizing tows but not in the parking lots where he worked, the New York Times reports. These towing companies are too eager to snatch cars because they make commissions on the fees desperate car owners pay to recover their vehicles.

Also many times tow truck drivers try to drive away quickly with the vehicle in tow because according to California law, they are required to stop if the car owner stops the tow truck driver and they are still on private property. In such cases, the vehicle is required to be returned for half the usual fee. It is illegal for them to drive away.

But tow truck drivers point to a variety of reasons and present the following arguments for why they act quickly:

– They don’t know how long a vehicle has been parked in a certain spot

– Getting permission from apartment managers or property owners can be time consuming or plain difficult, especially late at night

– They fear retaliation from the person whose vehicle is being towed

However, these arguments seem petty when you look at what happened to Leoncio Flores, a man who was run over by a tow truck in Santa Ana in June. His wife, Rosa Rubio, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pepe’s Towing. Rubio told the New York Times that she and her husband wanted to unload some groceries and that her husband had parked the vehicle in a “no parking” lane. Flores meanwhile returned and saw the tow truck pulling away with his vehicle when he ran alongside the tow truck yelling that he was ready to pay the “drop fee” to have the car released, according to witnesses.

If you believe you have been illegally towed, in order to file a complaint you will need to provide the following information to law enforcement:

– Name of tow company

– Number on the tow truck

– Name of tow truck driver

– Location where vehicle was towed

– Location of tow yard

– Who you dealt with at the tow yard

– Copies of all documentation – receipts, invoices, business cards, parking tickets