Move to block illegal towing

City Council members are trying to stop renegade towing companies that they say arrive at accident scenes and take advantage of motorists who don't know that only a handful of towing firms are licensed to handle such incidents.

These "predatory towers," as critics refer to them, monitor police scanners and sometimes arrive at the scene of a fender-bender even before the officers do. They ask motorists if they can tow their disabled vehicles and then charge insurance companies hundreds of dollars more than the licensed towers, whose fees are capped.


Licensed towing firms - called "medallion towers" - can charge about $115 per tow, a rate that they agree to as part of their contract with the city to handle police calls. But the predatory towers charge as much as $1,000 per tow, money that insurance companies must pay in order to retrieve damaged vehicles.

Motorists generally don't find out about the inflated fee, but their insurance rates, which are especially high in Baltimore, reflect it.


"The insurance companies are getting socked with these bills," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who introduced the bill, which would increase fines for predatory towers and authorize the issuance of civil citations for violators. "And the consumer doesn't feel it immediately. However, we do feel it eventually because our insurance rates are higher."

Curran introduced the bill, which is scheduled for a final vote Aug. 11, after several medallion towers complained about predatory towers. They told him stories about how one of their trucks would show up at an accident scene and a predatory tower would already be hooking up the wrecked vehicle.

The city limits the number of medallion towers and so there is a certain status in being certified. There's also money involved. Medallion towers are the first to be called when police get an accident report. However, medallion towers also must clean up after an accident, allow their fleets to be regularly inspected for safety, pay annual licensing fees and provide proof on insurance.

"What [predatory towers] are doing is illegal," said Phil Persing, general manager of Jim Elliott's Towing, a medallion towing firm located on York Road.

Representatives of several medallion towing firms have complained that, unlike police in Baltimore County, city police don't take control of an accident scene. As a result, they say, predatory towers are more likely to move in and take a disabled vehicle.

Predatory towing, they say, has gotten out of control in recent months.

Curran said he estimates that predatory towers as a group are reaping about $1 million a year in illegal tows. He said he hopes that the towing legislation will reduce insurance rates for residents, or at least save them from being taken advantage of by an illegitimate towing firm.

If approved, the legislation would also increase the application fees medallion towing firms pay to the city from $150 to $750 annually. The money would be used to pay for tow truck inspections and other towing industry oversight. The bill would also require towing firms to increase their bonding limit from $5,000 to $35,000. The fees and bonding rate have not been altered since the 1970s.


"It was time, and it was fair," Persing said of the decision to increase fees.

Persing said that motorists who are involved in an accident should look to be sure that the tower who is taking their vehicle is a medallion tower. Medallion tow trucks sport a large circular gold sticker on the driver's side front fender, he said.

"You want to be sure the company you are dealing with is bonded and insured," Persing said.

Curran said he expects the towing bill to pass despite some concerns from AAA, representatives of which have lobbied to make sure the bill protects motorists, including their right to use their own towing firm or a AAA tower as long as that tower can get to the scene of the accident in 20 minutes or less.

Mayor Sheila Dixon also supports the bill, according to her spokesman, Sterling Clifford.