Gary Isaacs returned home from a trip to California in January to discover his car missing from its Center City parking spot and two alarming letters in the mail.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority, in a letter dated Dec. 22, informed Isaacs that it had towed and impounded his car.

And a notice from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, dated Dec. 30, warned him that the car was scheduled to go on the auction block.

“YOU ARE HEREBY GIVEN NOTICE,” the court wrote, “that the vehicle listed below will be sold at auction and your legal and equitable interest in that vehicle will be extinguished. ...”

Isaacs was mystified. He’d last parked his 2005 BMW on Camac Street, within the area covered by his parking permit — not in a loading zone on Lombard Street, as the PPA was contending in its letter.

The next day, he called the parking authority, hoping to clear up the misunderstanding. A woman there said his car had apparently been “courtesy towed” from Camac to Lombard because while he was gone, his original parking space had been declared a temporary no-parking zone, reasons unknown.

“I had never heard of a ‘courtesy tow,’” said Isaacs, 61, who runs a small nonprofit that fights homelessness. “It sounds like a generous thing to do. Except they towed it to a place where it was illegal to park. And then they ticketed it, and impounded it, and put it up for auction.”

A Philadelphia courtesy tow — formally known as relocation towing — is when the Police Department, the PPA, or a private tow company moves legally parked vehicles to make room for a special event, utility work, or some other reason. The city’s failure to properly track the relocated vehicles has been a longtime problem — and one that could actually be getting worse, based on Inquirer interviews with dozens of drivers.

» READ MORE: How Philly police, parking authority, and tow companies lose cars while ‘courtesy’ towing

Isaacs then went to the PPA’s office to explain what had happened. But a hearing officer said there was no record to support his story. To get his car back, the fines and fees would cost him nearly $1,000.

Not wanting to lose the car to an auction scheduled for the following week, or to continue to rack up daily lot fees, Isaacs decided to pay up, hoping that he might be able to recoup the money down the line.

He found his car on the PPA lot that night.

The driver’s side window had been shattered. No one could explain why. The license plate had already been removed to prepare it for auction.

Isaacs drove off the PPA lot while sitting on pieces of glass from the busted window, his hands going numb from the cold as he headed up I-95.

So far, he hasn’t been able to get any of his money back. No one in city government can tell him who towed his car.

“Frustrated,” he said, “to say the least.”

What is a courtesy tow?

In Philadelphia, when the police, PPA, or a private company performs a courtesy tow, it is supposed to relay the new location of each vehicle to police headquarters, so when owners find the car missing and call 911, police can tell them where it is.

It often doesn’t work that way. Drivers have reported spending days or weeks searching for their cars — sometimes tracking them down a mile or more away — because neither the PPA nor police has any information about the tow. Many of these tows are recorded by police with a pre-internet system that relies mostly on handwritten notes and fax machines.

A botched courtesy tow can involve several government agencies. In interviews with The Inquirer, city officials seemed unaware of how widespread the problem is and who or what is to blame.

The PPA says tows from temporary no-parking zones are primarily a police function. Police say tow companies could be to blame for missing vehicles. The tow companies say police sometimes lose the information they provide.

Drivers who get sucked into the bureaucratic vortex describe it as city-sanctioned auto theft, often followed by punishing fines from the PPA if the car was moved to an illegal parking space, then ticketed, towed, or booted. The resulting fees can be difficult or impossible to fight.

Michael Ippolito, a graduate student at Jefferson, had to pay $500 to retrieve his Volkswagen after it was courtesy-towed from his legal parking space in Old City to an illegal spot, then ticketed four times by the PPA and impounded.

“They wouldn’t give me any records of who towed it,” said Ippolito, who finally got a refund a year later, in September, after threatening legal action. “It seems like they have a habit of stealing people’s cars, then charging them a lot of money to get them back.”

Ippolito said he is exploring the possibility of filing a class-action lawsuit.

» READ MORE: A Philly police ‘courtesy tow’ landed a lawyer in handcuffs for ‘stealing’ her own car

Katie Walther, a speech therapist at a city hospital, wasn’t so lucky. Her Jetta was towed from a free parking space near Fifth and Callowhill to a metered or two-hour parking zone, then towed again to another parking spot. It racked up $626 in tickets and penalties. She fought them up until last year, before giving in and paying the full amount after getting a notice that her car would be booted.

“It felt not only disorganized, but borderline illegal,” Walther said. “They keep getting their money. It seems like there is a lack of accountability. You go through this process of appealing, and you don’t really understand why you lost the appeal.”

Julia Sheppard took the fight a step further after her Mazda sedan was courtesy-towed from Center City to Grays Ferry, then ended up in a private lot, which forced her to pay $200 to recover it. Sheppard, a Temple Law student, appealed to the city’s Office of Risk Management.

In March 2020, a year after the tow, a claims examiner from Curley Adjustment Bureau, a firm acting on the city’s behalf, sent Sheppard a letter saying she had failed to prove the city was involved.

“[W]e must deny this claim on the grounds of Non-Involvement for this occurrence,” the examiner wrote.

“It’s just total chaos,” Sheppard said of the system.

Tirzah Vogels, who works for a biotech firm, had to pay a whopping $1,230 to get her car back after it was courtesy-towed while she was traveling for business. Same pattern: towed from a free spot to an illegal spot and repeatedly ticketed, then booted.

“They kind of laughed at me, like, ‘That’s not our problem. If you get a ticket, you have to pay it,’” Vogels said of her phone calls to police and the PPA. “That’s a lot of money just to get my vehicle back. And I had to go to work. It really leaves you stranded.”

In some cases, when vehicles cannot be located, owners have no choice but to report them stolen, which can bring its own set of problems.

Last year, The Inquirer reported, a West Philadelphia attorney whose car had been courtesy-towed due to tree trimming was pulled over in New Jersey months later and placed in handcuffs for driving her own Nissan. Philadelphia police had failed to take the car out of stolen status after it was located.

Passing the buck

Lt. Michael Anderson, head of the Police Department’s Tow Squad, said construction companies that hire tow companies to relocate cars could be partially to blame. He said a company supervisor is supposed to keep a list of cars that had been moved, but sometimes the construction is completed by the time vehicle owners realize their car is missing.

“There is no foreman to see,” Anderson said. “Those people have packed up and moved to another location.”

PPA officials say their tow truck operators use a new electronic system, which they began rolling out in late 2019, to record the location of all towed vehicles, but that relocation tows are usually performed by police or private tow companies.

“We don’t let our officers put people in illegal spots, and if they do, there’s a process to try to resolve those,” said Scott Petri, executive director of the PPA. “If that was happening frequently, I would know. Our employees, especially in the tow area, are really, really good at what they do.”

Kevin Wilson, manager at Rob’s Towing & Hauling, said that when his company is hired by the city or a construction company to relocate vehicles for road work, the drivers report all the information to the local police district.

“Every single vehicle that we relocate,” he said.

Wilson conceded that there have been times when his company has towed vehicles to parking spaces where they have subsequently been ticketed. In those cases, he said, the company will pay the fines.

“We’re not infallible, but we try to do the right thing,” he said.

Over the years, Wilson said, he has tangled with police captains over lost records. He recalled cases when his tow operators dropped off information to police, but police claim they never received it.

“My operator will say, ‘I gave it to the desk sergeant,’ and the desk sergeant will say, ‘I never got anything,’” Wilson said. “It has been a problem. We try to do our best.”

Other cities do a better job.

In Phoenix, the police department uses a statewide database that records all towed vehicles. Chicago’s tow-truck operators use handheld devices to input all vehicle relocation information into an immediately searchable website.

Walther, the speech therapist whose car was towed, suggested a stopgap, low-tech solution: Just put a sheet of paper on the windshields of vehicles after they’re towed.

“There should be something saying the car was moved from a free spot to this spot, please do not ticket,” she said.

Out of luck

When Isaacs finally located his BMW on the PPA lot in January, he found a Dec. 15 ticket, written by a Philadelphia police officer at the original parking spot on Camac Street, which had been deemed a temporary no-parking zone while he was away. There was also a handwritten note that stated: “This car will be ticketed & towed on Dec. 15th.”

On the other side of the note were the names of several city officials, including Steve Lorenz, chief highway engineer for the Streets Department.

Lorenz said that the sheet is the second page of a permit that would have been issued to a construction company or private individual seeking temporary no-parking signs. He said the permits can be obtained for something as small as securing a spot for a moving van.

“Whoever tows the car is supposed to give the tow slip to the local police district,” Lorenz said. “The normal process is they give it to the front desk.”

Lorenz said he did not know who had towed Isaacs’ car, or why someone would write a warning on the back of the permit and place it on a windshield.

“It looks like it was handwritten with a Sharpie and doesn’t tell anybody anything,” Lorenz said.

Anderson, the police lieutenant, said he also did not know who towed Isaacs’ car from Camac Street. PPA records show that police ticketed Isaacs’ car on Camac Street, but a PPA spokesperson said there were no records indicating that the agency had towed it. Rob’s Towing said it did not tow it, either.

After leaving the PPA lot, Isaacs figured that the police ticket, combined with the Streets Department permit and the note about an impending tow, would at least serve as proof that someone had towed his car into the loading zone.

He was wrong.

The Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, the agency through which vehicle owners can appeal PPA tickets, later told Isaacs that he had waived his right to appeal by paying the initial fines and fees.

“It’s basically an admission of guilt in their mind,” he said.

Including the tickets, tow fee, impound fee, and parts and labor for his broken window, the whole ordeal has so far cost him $1,469.

Isaacs’ only remaining option is to appeal to Common Pleas Court, which he intends to do.

The filing fee is $215.