Law could arm predatory tow victims with new weapons

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When a tow truck dragged Carol Stricker’s car from the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot at West 230th Street earlier this year, she was determined to find justice — putting an end to so-called predatory, and allegedly illegal and improper, towing practices.

And to get her money back.

“I pushed the button,” Stricker said. “I made such a fuss about it. Making phone calls” — to 311, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the city’s consumer affairs department  — “I was relentless in getting something done. I’m adamant. This can’t go on, and people need to have recourse.”

By law, tow companies must accept at least two different major credit cards for payment, said Christine Gianakis, consumer affairs press secretary. And the towed car must be taken directly to a licensed storage area — unless the car’s owner arrives before the driver has left. In such cases, the tow truck driver can charge a “drop fee” to unhook the car of no more than $62.50, plus tax.

Stricker claims the driver from IPK Automotive demanded cash and that she pay more than double the legal drop fee, settling on $136. 

The company, however, denies that.

But now, if Dinowitz has his way in Albany, people like Stricker claiming they’ve been targeted by predatory and illegal towing could have better recourse when it comes to pursuing the money they say those companies owe them.

“We’ve experienced tow companies that have been fined in the past — heavily — by consumer affairs, and then they’ve basically gone out of business and opened up under a new name,” Dinowitz said. “So in terms of consumers and whether they’re owed money, they would be able to file against the tow company as with any other company, but also against the principal owners. This way, you can’t just go out of business and open up under a new name, because essentially they would be personally liable.”

The bill amends the city’s administrative code, Dinowitz added, as well as other laws, including those covering liens and general business.

“It’ll be interesting to see what kind of support or opposition this bill gets,” Dinowitz said. 

“Typically my Republican colleagues oppose anything that’s pro-consumer. Hopefully, though, they’ll stand up for their own constituents in this case and support this. But time will tell.”

Don’t paint with broad brush

The man identifying himself as “Chris” with no last name — and as IPK Automotive’s owner — said predatory towing practices are attracting undue scrutiny when the focus should be on bigger crimes like robbery and drug dealing.

“Honestly, we’re only providing a service,” Chris said. “I don’t see any crime in that. If we’re there, we’re there because we’re contracted to be there and tow cars, not because we just come up and tow cars and want to be there. That’s not how this works. So I don’s see why it’s the towing company that’s taking all the heat.”

IPK has since shifted its focus to other parts of the city, according to Chris. He still has a contract at the West 230th Dunkin’ Donuts, but he’s “not towing as aggressively.”

Criminal defense attorney James Kousouros warns against casting all towing companies in a negative light simply from a handful of complaints.

“There are certainly bad actors in every industry, and legislation that’s designed to penalize or regulate within a reasonable spectrum are in place for just about every industry that services communities,” Kousouros said. “As long as the regulations or statutes that are enacted are reasonable related to the conduct and afford all parties an opportunity to be heard, then they would be serving an appropriate purpose. The problem is when these complaints are used to paint an entire industry as corrupt or abusive, which in this particular industry, I don’t believe to be the case. This type of activity is not rampant.”

In fact, Kousouros added, legitimate towing companies would rather not jeopardize their relationships with the city. 

“These towing companies have very lucrative contracts, and the last thing they want to do is lose these contracts,” he said. “I think the problem is more encountered with what we’d call ‘gypsy companies,’ guys that come up on the scene quickly and are unauthorized and are looking to make quick bucks.”

 

Too much incentive to take bad route?

Marvin Robbins, first vice president of DC 37 Local 983, which represents city tow truck operators, suspects some private towing companies may incentivize drivers for towing more cars, prompting them to be aggressive and even break rules to rack up commissions. That’s different from city employees who are paid a salary starting around $41,000 a year. 

“You get paid that regardless of how many cars you tow, so there’s no incentive” to tow a greater number, Robbins said.

But that’s not the case with all private towing companies, said Mike Franco, who identified himself as a manager at Lil Pete’s Automotive, which, on at least one sign in North Riverdale, lists its address as 1460 Blondell Ave., in the eastern part of the borough.

“A lot of companies offer commission on stuff like that,” Franco said. “Us? We pay our drivers a set salary per day, and that’s it — between $140 and $150, and they work eight-hour days.”

All of Lil Pete’s tow trucks are equipped with a wireless credit card machine, Franco said, adding Dinowitz’s new bill could weed out some of the “fly-by-night” competition.

“It’s very simple,” Franco said. “If you’re running a legitimate business, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re running a skeezy business, you have a lot of issues. What’ll happen is (the bill) will fan out all the illegal people, and leave the legal people standing.”

Thanks in no small part to her tenacity following up with consumer affairs, Stricker got all of her money back.

“People say to me, ‘Why’d you do this? I wouldn’t do it,’” Stricker said. “If you’re going to take that attitude, nothing’s going to get done. I just filed (a complaint) wherever I could file, I was just so angry.”

Stricker sees Dinowitz’s bill as a step in the right direction, and wishes it had come sooner.

“Having this bill, if the public is made aware of it and they don’t panic, then that’ll be a plus,” she said. “It can’t hurt, but I think it has to kick in. Is it enough? I don’t know, but it’s a good start, and only time will tell.”