Predatory towing victimizes residents

(Photo: Mary Kay Mallonee)

WHEATON, Md. (WJLA) - The two men casually chatting at the edge of a busy strip mall parking lot blend in among all the other people coming and going from the different shops; but those two men are not customers, they're tow truck drivers.

Like hawks they are watching this parking lot, known for its confusing parking rules, waiting for someone to park in the wrong spot.

Just then, 7 On Your Side hidden cameras capture one of the tow truck drivers as he sees a woman pull into a spot and walk into one of the shops in the strip mall.

He runs to get his tow truck, which is parked behind the mall, out of sight.

Minutes later the woman emerges from the store and realizes her car is missing.

"It's gone, and I'm furious," she said, shaking her head. "The first thing we do is call the lawyer. The second thing we do is go to the county government and we throw a fit."

Employees of the shops tell 7 On Your Side they see cars get towed from this lot every day.

"It's confusing," observed one store manager, who said he has seen several of his customers' cars towed. "I've had people cry and get upset. It's kind of heartbreaking."

7 On Your Side went back a second day and saw the same two tow truck drivers watching the lot. They're following the law, to the letter, towing people who don't obey the parking signs.

ABC7's Kris Van Cleave approached one of the tow truck drivers and asked if he considered what he was doing to be predatory towing.

"I don't consider it predatory, not at all," said the tow truck driver, who refused to give his name. "We are out here everyday because we know that people do have a tendency to park where they aren't supposed to park."

Next, 7 On Your Side went to a busy parking lot in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington, and with hidden cameras rolling, we saw several tow truck drivers swoop in, hook up parked cars, and tow them away within just seconds.

One tow truck driver quickly hauled a car away from a parking garage, then he stopped down the street, and that's when he took the time to finish securing the car with chains and straps.

It's known as "scoop and go."

While it is legal in Virginia and D.C., in Maryland "scoop and go" is against the law.

"It's dangerous," said Eric Friedman, the director of Montgomery County's Office of Consumer Protection. "It could cause an accident. It could kill somebody."

Friedman's office investigates complaints against towing companies. He says the "scoop and go" technique allows tow truck drivers to get away before a possible confrontation with the vehicle's owner.

He says there is a financial incentive behind the "scoop and go" as well.

"They'll make two or three times as much money on the tow than they will on the drop fee," said Friedman.

Drivers in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. who see their vehicle getting hitched to a tow truck are legally entitled to tell the tow truck driver to release their vehicle, before it drives away, if they agree to pay a drop fee.

Drop fees usually run between $25 and $50.

Towing fees in the area can be $150 to $200 - or even more.

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