There are few scenarios in which seeing your car hooked to a tow truck is not, well, a drag. It generally means you have broken down, been in an accident or run afoul of the parking authorities.
In each instance, your life has been disrupted, and you are out money, and even worse, you or someone else may have suffered a serious injury.
That’s why reports of a resurgent towing and car-flipping scam in the Houston area are particularly galling. Exploiting the misfortune of people at their most vulnerable is a pathetic way to increase profits.
Diana Ploch told Houston Chronicle reporter Eric Dexheimer how she was still trying to get her bearings after a September 2018 collision that totaled her Toyota and left her dazed from the impact of an exploding airbag when she was approached.
“I was sitting on the ground, and the tow truck driver came over and said, ‘Here, you got to sign this right now; we’re taking the car to the impound lot,’” she recalled. “They were just so authoritative, I didn’t even think to question them.”
The paperwork was later signed by Ploch’s parents who had rushed to be with her after the accident. It authorized workers to transfer the mangled Camry from South West Carzone Auto Storage, a regulated vehicle storage facility where prices were limited by law, to the nearly identically named South West CarZone body shop at the same address, where prices were not regulated.
Records show the body shop then charged the Plochs $324 for “payout,” $500 for an “administrative fee,” $300 for “preservation” and “transfer,” and $320 for storage. The shop also charged $200 for “teardown,” even though all parties agreed the car was totaled.
Vehicle storage units, by contrast, are licensed by the state and can charge only $20.64 per day for keeping a car until the owner decides how to dispose of it.
The scheme to “flip” cars from regulated storage businesses to unregulated repair shops is not new, but local police and state regulators say they have seen a sharp increase recently.
“We get 30 to 40 reports a month,” Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Leck said. “And there’s a lot that don’t get reported.”
Investigations are time-consuming and putting the bad actors out of business through the licensing process can be difficult, authorities say.
So, the best defense is for consumers to be informed and on guard.
The scene of the accident is not the place nor the “time to be signing legal documents,” said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Let on-scene police arrange the tow and contact your insurance company as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary fees.
As with everything, the best advice is to read a document before you sign it. Ploch said the company that had approached her when she was still disoriented had folded the release form in such a way that it was unclear what her father was signing.
Consumers are encouraged to contact local police or state regulators with complaints:
Houston Police Department Auto Dealers Detail: 832-394-4869
Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Towing Enforcement: 936-538-7782
Harris County Sheriff’s Office complaints: 713-274-7410 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation: https://www.tdlr.texas.gov/complaints/
It’s also time for Harris and Montgomery County officials to look at ways to better control what some describe as a “Wild West” atmosphere among towing companies rushing wreckers to the scenes of accidents in hopes of landing some business.
Seeking bids for towing contracts from individual private companies and setting dispatch protocols would go a long way toward eliminating the confusion at an already chaotic crash scene. Getting your car towed is bad enough. Consumers shouldn’t get smacked in the face again by unnecessary bills.