What rights do you have when a tow truck driver hauls away your car? It depends where you live.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators found Massachusetts lacks some key features in its towing laws that protect consumers in other states from predatory practices. And advocates say if we made some small changes, it would make a world of difference for consumers.
“Consumers are incredibly vulnerable, and it’s a perfect recipe for some people to take advantage,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog.
We started researching towing laws around the country while investigating a tow truck driver on the South Shore who was accused by police of illegally towing people’s cars.
One driver, Ron Affsa, said his Jeep was towed from outside Hancock Liquors in Quincy, where he’s a regular customer. He parked in one of the store’s reserved spots last month, but stopped into the Korean BBQ next door to pick up food.
“I was in front of both of their stores,” Affsa said. “I went into both of their stores.”
But that detour proved costly. When he came out, Affsa’s Jeep was gone. The tow company that removed it later accused Affsa of parking in a handicapped spot, according to police records. He had to pay $200 in cash to get his vehicle back.
“I think it’s brazen,” said Affsa, who denies parking in a handicapped spot. “I’m shocked. I’m shocked that this could happen.”
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Affsa’s experience might have been different if his Jeep had been towed elsewhere in the country.
Most towing disputes don’t turn into criminal matters. They are civil issues. The state’s Department of Public Utilities regulates the “rates and practices” of nearly 800 tow companies in Massachusetts.
A spokeswoman for the DPU has not responded to our repeated requests for an interview. But we found it’s often the consumer’s word against the tow truck driver’s. Of the nearly 200 consumer complaints we analyzed, we found the state sided with the tow company 64 percent of the time.
In other states, tow companies also face stricter rules. For example, more than half of all states require tow companies to notify you if they remove your car, and 21 require towers to make their fees readily available to drivers. Massachusetts does not. Neighboring Rhode Island requires fees and rights be printed on the back of all receipts.
Nine states say tow companies must accept credit cards. Companies here in the Bay State can insist on cash only, making it harder for consumers to dispute charges later.
In 17 other states, towing companies have to stay open for set hours so drivers can predictably pick up their vehicles. Fifteen mandate that drivers be allowed to get belongings from inside their vehicles after they're towed.
And six require tow companies to take a picture of your vehicle before they tow it. That visual evidence would have settled whether or not Affsa was in a handicap spot. Quincy Police tell us that’s a police matter anyway -- not a law private tow companies should enforce.
If you have a towing issue, you can complain to the DPU, the Attorney General’s Office, police or the business who is contracting with the towing company. But unfortunately, advocates say, it often takes going to small claims court to get any money back.