Tow truck drivers are operating in frequent and flagrant violation of a new Broward law meant to protect drivers from towing abuses, a Sun Sentinel investigation has found.
The newspaper surveilled tow spots, analyzed more than three years of data, reviewed complaints and interviewed tow truck drivers and motorists and found that despite the new law, these now-illegal practices continue:
• Drivers are overcharged, especially those who catch their car in mid-tow and should be able to recover it for half price.
• Tow trucks snatch parked cars without advance approval from property owners.
• Tow companies use "spotters" to find parked cars to tow.
• Customers are forced to pay cash, which many cannot do on the spot, leading to unlawful impoundments and additional fees.
Towed drivers can complain, and the few who do have been successful, but many seem unaware of their legal recourse.
What's more, the 10-month-old law clearly has failed to stop the heavy but legal towing that inspired it.
Political leaders decided something needed to be done after an especially Black Friday at Sawgrass Mills in 2011, when more than 300 post-Thanksgiving shoppers returned to their parking spots to find their cars had been towed away. The public howled, and Broward officials took action with a law that, among other things, banned tow truck drivers from hauling cars away if they don't have advance permission from the property owner.
Such laws have been used all over the United States to curb aggressive or predatory towing.
Tow trucks don't need long to carry out their business.
At one of the towing hotspots, a paid parking lot at 421 SE Second St. in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a block north of the shops and restaurants of Las Olas Boulevard, two All County Towing trucks chugged in one recent evening, slipped into two illegally parked cars with the use of "slim jim'' lockout tools, and made off with the vehicles in 90 seconds. At least 454 cars were towed from that lot in the three-year period from 2010 to early 2013.
Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said she's already convinced that Broward's law isn't tough enough. She's mulling something stronger, like the laws in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. There, the laws require licenses for those in the tow business, and set criminal background standards.
"My hope is we see towing [only] where it's really necessary for public safety reasons,'' Jacobs said.
By unanimously enacting the new regulations last spring, Jacobs and the rest of the Broward commissioners hoped to eradicate some of the most maddening practices of the towing industry.
Tow companies are now required to accept credit and debit cards. They must give change. They can't charge more than the county says they can. They are forbidden from towing a car that has a person in it.
Most significantly, the law outlaws "patrol towing,'' where tow truck drivers roam parking lots looking for targets, or use paid spotters to alert them to illegally parked cars.
Tow drivers are no longer allowed to hook up cars, even if they have a contract with the property owner, unless each tow is approved in advance by the property owner or homeowners association representative in person or by fax. And the property owner is not allowed to make money from the towing.
Some tow companies and apartment complex managers told the Sun Sentinel they were unaware of the county's new law.
Tarik Kose said in an interview he still was using paid spotters in Hollywood for his towing business, T&K Towing & Roadside Services LLC, and he didn't know he had to have permission from the property owner for every tow until he was cited by the county.
He broke the new law in November, when he towed a truck from Everglades Lakes Mobile Home Park in Davie, the county determined.
Kose overcharged, he demanded cash, he didn't have the property owner's approval to tow the truck, county investigators found. Broward County's Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Division demanded he refund the $175. Kose told the Sun Sentinel he's not going to because it's a "civil matter,'' and the owner of the towed vehicle should sue if he thinks the tow was illegal.
"It's unfair,'' Kose said of the new law. "It's affecting us, it's affecting how we make money, and we have to abide by all these crazy rules.''
Similar regulations have worked well in Palm Beach County, where county towing compliance officer Tom Hagan said if he gets wind of a tow company using a hired spotter or towing without explicit advance permission from the property owner, he investigates and gets refunds for consumers.
"We have a zero tolerance for what we call predator towing,'' Hagan said.
Broward officials and consumer advocates say if more drivers knew their rights under the new law, there would be fewer abuses.
Under the ordinance, consumers who think they have been wronged can file a complaint. And the track record for complainants is very good: Every driver who complained to Broward consumer protection officials this year about the towing of a vehicle, except those whose complaints fell outside the county's jurisdiction, received a full or partial refund because the law had been broken in some way.
At least eight tow companies have been found in violation of the law and have been warned, and face fines of $250 and then $500 for future violations. All-Ways Towing was the first company to actually be fined, for demanding cash-only and towing without advance permission. An official there declined to comment to the Sun Sentinel, saying, "I'm not interested. Have a nice day.''
Even with Broward's new ordinance, high-volume towing continues.
From a single vacant lot on Andrews Avenue near downtown Fort Lauderdale, more than 3,000 cars have been towed in the past three years, and such removals have continued under the law, data analyzed by the Sun Sentinel shows.
The Black Friday towing fiasco that prompted the new Broward County law made headlines, but there are dozens of other hot tow sites in Broward that aren't widely known. Drivers continue parking at these locations, only to have their vehicles swiftly towed away.
At some of these sites, the heavy-volume towing has sparked complaints of consumer abuses and law-breaking, the Sun Sentinel found.
In the reams of data provided by the Broward Sheriff's Office and the police departments of Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise and Lauderhill, the newspaper identified 64 hotspots where at least 100 cars were towed over the three-year period.
In that span, more than 50,000 people in Broward had their vehicles towed for illegal parking.
No. 1 on the county's tow list: The scrubby, gravel-strewn lot at 529 S. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, scene of 3,178 tows in the past three years.
At $100 charge per tow, plus fees and storage charges as warranted, the tract on the northwest corner of Andrews Avenue and Southwest Sixth Street, across from a Publix and near the main Broward courthouse, has been a consistent revenue source for All County Towing, the company with the towing contract.
Two blocks away, two drivers sit in their trucks under a shade tree by the train tracks, their staging ground to swoop in.
Over a period of several weeks, the Sun Sentinel closely watched towing operations at the Andrews Avenue lot and sought comment from police, who decided All County was violating the county ordinance in at least two ways: inadequate signage and demanding cash in exchange for releasing cars.
Janine Phillip, who gave a lift to her friend, Alex Martin, so she could go to the courthouse recently, was one of the drivers to fall afoul of the spot. When they returned to the lot 45 minutes later, they found Phillip's gray Toyota Corolla was gone.
"The towing sign is on the other side of the lot," Martin objected.
Phillip was sobbing. "I can't afford $100. I can't afford a cab," she said. "I need to get to work."
Where Phillip entered the lot, a sign appeared to warn of towing on the east side of the block. Phillip, like others, parked on the west side and thought she was safe.
After being contacted by the Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale police met with All County Towing owner Chris Casale and told him to put up more signs.
What was there was inadequate, old and "sloppy," police Capt. Dave Wheeler told the Sun Sentinel.
"Thank you for letting us know the signs were not correct," Fred Kern, a representative of the California-based property owner, Kygo LLC, emailed the newspaper.
Reviewing operations at the lot at the Sun Sentinel's request, police also found All County was improperly demanding cash in exchange for releasing cars back to their owners at the scene.
Casale told the Sun Sentinel he believed the old signs were sufficient, but wanted to cooperate with police. He said he was unaware his drivers were required to accept credit and debit cards, and that he has let them know.
"If the law requires me to take credit cards,'' he said, "then credit cards will be taken."
Towed from home
Some of the most vigorous towing is conducted by homeowner associations and apartment complex managers, often of their own residents, analysis of the towing data shows.
Aggressive residential towing isn't addressed specifically by the new law, and Jacobs said it's an area where abuses continue.
Towing from privately owned lots is legal if someone doesn't have the right to park there, or is parked in a manner forbidden by the property owner. The owners decide for themselves what constitutes a towable offense.
In places like Palm Aire Gardens in Pompano Beach, backing into a parking spot is enough to invite the TowMAXX Co. tow trucks. In a three-year period, they towed the cars of 779 owners, tenants and guests.
A TowMAXX employee who gave the pseudonym "Carl B. Towed'' said people should follow the rules if they don't want to be towed.
"We're not really the bad guy,'' he said. "Is the cop the bad guy when he pulls you over? Or did you cause it?''
Many residents and their guests complain they have been towed for breaking rules they weren't aware of, or rules that may be included in the fine print of written condo association documents.
Homeowner towing took an ugly turn in January, when a Capitol Towing driver hooked up the car of Elias Konwufine, 39, a Keiser University professor and administrator.
In a small Lauderhill neighborhood of townhouses, Sienna Greens, Konwufine broke a homeowner association rule by parking on the sidewalk; his son's tutor had taken his driveway spot. Trying to stop the tow, Konwufine was fatally crushed under the wheels of his own Mercedes.
No charges were filed. The professor's car was one of 60 vehicles removed from the residential cloister of about 130 homes in the past three years, data show.
Residents at Cypress Grove, a huge residential complex in Lauderhill where 789 cars were removed in the three-year period, told the Sun Sentinel that a spotter working for the tow company roved the expansive parking lot at night with a flashlight, looking for expired registration stickers. The law does not allow companies to use spotters.
Cars parked astride painted lines or backed into spaces also were towed, residents said.
Contacted by the Sun Sentinel for comment, officials at the complex said they've backed off and instructed Orange State Towing to issue warnings first. Spotters are no longer being used, they said.
In Sunrise, at the Isles at Lago Mar complex, David DiFalco remembers walking out one morning to find his parking space empty. Lago Mar is one of the biggest tow sites in Sunrise, second only to the Sawgrass Mills area, tow data show.
DiFalco had been parked in his own numbered spot, but said he was towed for placing his residential sticker on the dashboard instead of the windshield. It cost him about $130, he said.
"I do believe in towing cars,'' DiFalco said. But "you can't just exploit people.''
Solution: more booting?
Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties require background checks and licensing for tow company owners. Palm Beach County goes further, requiring it for tow truck drivers, too.
In Broward, officials already are talking about following the neighboring counties' lead.
Jacobs, the Broward mayor, said her own son was towed at Palm Aire in Pompano Beach for backing in to a parking space. After that experience, and hearing a friend's tow horror story, she said she's ready to consider stronger regulations.
Jacobs said she also sees a solution in promoting the booting of illegally parked cars, instead of towing. To that end, she pushed successfully last month for Broward to increase from $25 to $65 the fee that booting companies can collect from people who park illegally, to make the business more attractive.
Booting is more "humane," she said, because a car is immobilized at the parking spot and the metal boot on the wheel and a bright sticker left on the windshield serve as a visible deterrent to other drivers, reducing the chances of mega-towing at the same spot.
"Booting is a much more kind way of getting people to understand the rules,'' she said. "I think over time people will appreciate that much more than towing. I think you'll see less incidence of towing.''
The result would be welcome news to Silas Rodgers.
Rodgers had just returned from a mission trip to Haiti in January 2012 to his complex in Coconut Creek when the friend who was dropping him off parked in the wrong spot.
They were unloading his luggage and sharing some photos, Rodgers said. Within minutes they heard the distinctive growl of a tow truck engine.
"They were right there on us like flies in stink,'' his friend, Ken Baurley, recalled.
Rodgers said he was shocked to see his own neighbor, a homeowner board member, tagging along with the driver who hooked up Baurley's truck.
"I don't know anybody, even the meanest person on earth,'' Rodgers said, "that would go around in a parking lot and say: 'Tow that one, tow that one.'"
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