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Don't get caught in a car-towing scam

By Posted : 11/16/2010

Tow truck scamsWhen you're stranded alongside a dark highway after a car accident, the arrival of a tow truck is a welcome sight.

"There are some real heroes among tow truck operators," Towing and Recovery Association of America Executive Director Harriet Cooley says.

Unfortunately, there are also a few scoundrels determined to take you or your car insurance company for a ride. But you can learn to protect yourself.

Tow truck wreck chasers monitor police and fire scanners and then race to accident scenes to snag the tow before anyone calls for assistance.

Not all wreck chasers are out to cheat you, but some of these tow truck operators take advantage of shaken drivers.

How car-towing scams unfold

A dishonest operator may tow your car without saying where he or she is taking it. By the time you finally track it down, you owe a bundle in storage fees.

In other cases, tow truck operators may pressure you to let them take the car to a particular body shop, says Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines for the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America.

Some bandit operators work in cahoots with dishonest attorneys, repair shops and medical practitioners to file phony or exaggerated insurance claims.

The tow truck industry is regulated on the state and local level, so laws vary from one jurisdiction to the next, Cooley says. In many big cities, such as Los Angeles, wreck chasing is illegal.

Tips for avoiding car-towing scams

To avoid car-towing scams, you'll have to be a smart consumer. Here are some tips:

  • Stay alert for scams. Verify that the tow truck operator who arrives was sent by your insurance company's roadside assistance program or other car service. A dishonest operator might claim to have been sent by your insurance company and tow away your car before the right company arrives, Jones says. Get the name, phone number and address of the towing company. Beware of operators with trucks that don't display the company name.
  • Collect plenty of information. Ask where the tow truck operator is taking your car, how far away the storage lot is, how much the company charges in storage fees, when the company starts charging storage fees and whether fees increase over time, Cooley says. Some companies don't charge a fee until the first full day in storage, while others might charge a fee as soon as the car is deposited in the lot.
  • Check the damage report. Make sure the operator completes a physical assessment. Walk around the car with the operator and get a copy of the damage report before the operator leaves with your car, Cooley says.
  • Rebuff high-pressure tactics. Don't let a tow truck operator pressure you into taking the vehicle to a particular body shop or sign a form agreeing to prepay fees, Passmore says.
  • Explore your options. Don't be afraid to call for another company if you're uncomfortable with a tow truck operator who arrives on the scene, Cooley says.
  • Prepare before disaster strikes. If you don't have a roadside assistance plan, get the names of reputable towing companies in your city before an emergency happens. Ask around for referrals and look for companies who are members of the Towing and Recovery Association of America or its state chapters. The association has a certification program for operators that emphasizes professionalism and customer service.
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