Tow trucks overcharging while law enforcement looks away

10Investigates confronts a towing company that is overcharging for removing vehicles.

TAMPA, Florida – There’s nothing worse than having your car towed away at the end of the night when you think you’ve done nothing wrong;  except having your car towed away, and facing outrageous charges to get it back.

A 10Investigates analysis of public towing records and receipts submitted by viewers suggests at least one large local tow truck company has been regularly overcharging drivers whose cars were impounded from Tampa-area parking lots.

Florida State Statute 715.07 limits the fees wrecker companies can charge drivers who have had their cars towed from private property; each county sets its own rates.  But Target Recovery & Transport in Tampa has regularly added improper fees, including a $50 “after-hours gate fee,” to the amount drivers must cough up to get their vehicles back late at night or on weekends.  That often pushes the total bill upwards of $175 for a short tow.

Hillsborough County only allows wrecker companies to charge the extra “after-hours” fee if the driver fails to claim his/her car within three hours. But nearly a dozen viewers complained to 10Investigates about Target Recovery, and the $50 charge was assessed to every single one of them. It appeared all but one retrieved his/her vehicle within three hours.

PREVIOUSLY: Aggressive towing targeting drinkers who don't drive home
PREVIOUSLY: How to get a refund if you're towed illegally

Kris Grau, owner of Target Recovery, agreed to an interview regarding the improper fees, but canceled.  When 10Investigates went to the company’s gated tow lot on Florida Ave a few days later, Grau called the reporter and said he would talk, but not in front of a camera.

“(If drivers) are being charged a fee (inappropriately), then they will be reimbursed,” Grau said, promising to fix any problems in his company’s billing practices.

10Investigates told Grau it found overcharging during major events in Downtown Tampa – including the Gasparilla road races – as well as other examples submitted by 10News viewers.

Grau denied any intentional overcharging and blamed any mistakes on employee education.  He said he knew the rules, but according to Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission, he told the agency last week that he misunderstood the 3-hour rule and thought he could charge the fee to any driver who didn’t pick up his/her car within one hour. 

PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream said ignorance of the rules is no excuse in Hillsborough County, where the maximum-allowable charges are clear and regularly disseminated to wrecker owners.

“If it (continued) to happen,” Cockream said of Target Recovery overcharging, “as it appears to be, this is bad management by the company.”


PTC slow to react

Cockream said, despite Target’s reputation for aggressive towing, the PTC had not cited the company for any county or state violations in the three years prior to 10Investigates’ questions. Cockream said the PTC prefers to mediate individuals’ complaints and get refunds for overcharging, rather than penalize the company.

But 10Investigates’ review suggests the improper gate fee was common at Target Recovery, and could have potentially meant tens of thousands of dollars a year taken from drivers improperly.

In fact, a recent PTC investigation into a questionable Target Recovery tow from a parking lot in Ybor City resulted in $25 refunds for three drivers who contested the “special equipment” fee the company charged them for a late-night tow.

Those drivers were initially told they would not get their Jeeps back without coughing up $225 each: $115 for the tow, $10 for hauling the car two miles, $50 for a late-night gate fee, $25 for special equipment required to tow the vehicles, and $25 parking fine, set by the owners of the lot. The drivers said they paid attendants to park in the Ybor lot, but were never told they needed to put their receipts on the dashboard, prompting the eventual impound.

“(The Target Recovery employee) started rattling off the charges on the bill,” said Joe Mecca Jr., who had to get up at 2:30 a.m. that night last August to help his son retrieve his Jeep. “$225…and it was not even within an hour of the time they picked it up.”

MAP: Where are you most likely to get towed in Tampa Bay?

Mecca has intimate familiarity with the county’s impound rules as the former president of the Hillsborough County Association of Wreckers. But without their vehicle in the early morning hours, the Meccas felt like they had no choice but to pay what he called a “ransom.”

“They shouldn’t rob people,” a frustrated Mecca said. “I feel like they should have had a ski mask and gun – I would have felt better.”

But while the PTC negotiated small refunds for Mecca and his son’s friends, inspectors failed to recognize the late-night gate fees on their receipts were improper, since their vehicles were claimed within three hours of the impound.

Inspectors also failed to check if the impounds were reported to local police, as required by state law. At least one was not, rendering that nonconsensual impound entirely improper.

Since 10Investigates began asking questions, the PTC has issued two citations to Target Recovery, and is investigating more questionable cases. But the PTC has only cited 16 wrecker companies and drivers in Hillsborough County in the last three years, with most fines costing just $50 to $100 – less than a single tow.

Somehow, that’s still more towing enforcement than just about every other law enforcement agency in West/Central Florida.


How do I get a refund?

A 10Investigates survey of local law enforcement agencies reveals the majority in Greater Tampa Bay do not record - and do not take action on - complaints they receive regarding wreckers. However, a number of 10News viewers report calling their local law enforcement agencies to file complaints, only to be turned away.

The key to prompting action may be convincing your local law enforcement agency to take a report for a violation of county impound fee ordinances (see below) or the state statutes on required towing signage and procedures (FSS 715.07). Violations may be considered criminal and law enforcement can bring charges against any wrecker company that does not comply. It’s easier in some counties than others.

Hillsborough County has the PTC, which acts as a clearinghouse for consumer taxicab, limo, and wrecker complaints. You can file a complaint with the PTC here. The Tampa Police Department has also intervened on occasion for violations of the state towing laws.

Pinellas County’s Consumer Protection department has pushed tow truck companies to issue more than a dozen refunds to drivers in the last three years, and the department has also issued a handful of warnings and citations. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office can also investigate unlawful tow truck operations, although its last arrest related to these violations was in Sept. 2013.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office recently arrested a pair of tow truck owners for violations of local and state rules, and they have warned other companies about violations as well.

Pasco County's code enforcement has investigated complaints about tow truck problems, but could not find any action taken against wreckers.

And the following agencies also reported zero actions regarding nonconsensual towing over the past three years: Sarasota Co. Sheriff’s Office, Sarasota Police Dept., Manatee Co. Sheriff’s Office, Lakeland Police Dept., Clearwater Police Dept., and Pasco Co. Sheriff’s Office.  The agencies have all now been briefed on 10Investigates’ story, however, as well as state statute 715.07.

Drivers also have the ability to sue over improper impounds or overcharging if law enforcement is unhelpful.
 

What’s my county’s maximum charge for nonconsensual towing?

Hillsborough County – The PTC limits wreckers to charge $115 for a tow, plus $5 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 10 miles in a county the size of Hillsborough. Photos of the impounded vehicle, prior to towing, are required in Hillsborough. An additional $25 fee is allowed if the wrecker needs “special equipment” to lift the front of the vehicle if it is front-wheel or four-wheel drive. If the vehicle’s owner takes more than three hours to claim his or her vehicle, a $50 gate fee is allowed on Sundays, as well as Mondays through Saturdays between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Storage fees are prohibited within the first 24 hours.

Pinellas County - County ordinance 122-42 limits wreckers to charge $100 for a tow, plus $3 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 10 miles in a county the size of Pinellas. And the county prohibits any “special equipment” or “after-hours” gate fees. . A $30/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work. A $20 storage fee may be charged per day after the first 6 hours, and a one-time $30 administrative fee may be charged after the first 30 hours.

Polk County - County ordinances 08-065 and 13-059 limits wreckers to charge $100 for a tow, plus $4 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 10 miles in a county the size of Polk, unless there isn’t a towing facility within 10 miles. The county allows a one-time $45 “administrative” fee once a vehicle is placed in storage, and a $35 “extra preparation” fee if the drive shaft, linkage, or drive shaft needs to be adjusted to protect the impounded vehicle. Between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. – and all day on Sundays – the facility may charge a $50 “non-business hour” fee. After 6 hours, the facility may also charge a $20/day storage fee.

Pasco County - County resolution 07-169 limits wreckers to charge $105 for a tow, plus $3 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 15 miles in a county the size of Pasco, unless there is no towing facility within 15 miles. A $25 inside storage fee - or $20 outside storage fee - may be charged per day after the first 6 hours, and a one-time $35 administrative fee may be charged after the first 30 hours. The county also allows a one-time $35 after-hours charge for vehicles picked up between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. if – and only if – no authorized employee was on-premises at the time of the pickup request. A $90/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work.

Sarasota County - County ordinance 122-71 and resolutions 2008-176 and 2007-089 limit wreckers to charge $125 for a tow, plus $4 for every mile transported, up to 12 miles.  A $100/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work.  A $25 "dollie" fee may be charged if necessary.  A $25 outdoor storage fee - or a $35 inside storage fee - may be charged per day after the first 6 hours, and $40 administrative fees may be charged after the first 24 hours of storage, and a second time after the next 24 hours of storage.  Between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. – and any day the facility is closed – the wrecker company may charge a $50 “after hour gate fee."

Manatee County - County code sec. 2-19-71 limits wreckers to charge $125 for a tow, plus $4 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 15 miles in a county the size of Manatee, unless there is no towing facility within 15 miles. A $100/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work. A $15 fee may be added if the drive shaft, linkage, or drive shaft needs to be prepared to protect the impounded vehicle. A $35 "after-hours" fee may be charged before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m., or on Sundays.  A $25/day storage fee and one-time $45 administrative fee may be charged if the vehicle is not retrieved within six hours.

Hernando County - HCSO tells 10Investigates its rates mirror the Florida Highway Patrol's rates, which are $125 for a base tow, plus $3 for every mile transported beyond a 10-mile radius. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 15 miles in a county the size of Hernando, unless there is no towing facility within 15 miles. A $75/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work. A $30 outdoor storage fee - or a $35 inside storage fee - may be charged per day after the first 6 hours, and one-time $35 administrative fees may be charged after the first 24 hours. 

Citrus County - County code 98-2 limits wreckers to charge $100 for a tow, plus $3 for every mile transported. The state prohibits wreckers from towing vehicles more than 15 miles in a county the size of Citrus, unless there is no towing facility within 15 miles. An $80/hr charge may be added for excessive labor that requires more than 30 minutes of work. A $35 administrative fee and $20/day storage may be charged if the vehicle is not immediately retrieved.
 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
4/26/16: Pasco approves anti-DUI towing ordinance
4/13/16: Another case of predatory towing in Tampa
3/29/16: Pinellas commissioners consider anti-towing ordinance
3/17/16: Tampa to crack down on predatory towing outside bars
2/25/16: Can Tampa Bay invent new ways to discourage DUIs?
2/24/16: Pasco now considering copying Tampa's ordinance
2/16/16: Hillsborough moves toward better tow laws
2/10/16: Pinellas officials want tow truck protections too
2/9/16: Refunds for tow victims, as Hillsborough eyes amnesty law
2/9/16: EDITORIAL: Other cities should copy Tampa
2/8/16: Tampa council calls for immediate tow fixes
2/7/16: Tow trucks penalizing drinkers who don't drive
1/25/16: Confronting predatory towing & how to get a refund if you're towed illegally
1/18/16: Failure to "move over" puts tow operators in danger

Find 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.


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