Any Philadelphian who has returned to the spot where they last parked their car only to find it missing is familiar with the kind of panic:

Did I misremember where I parked? Wait, is this a tow-away zone? Oh no — did my car get stolen?

Any scenario is possible, of course. But, in Philly, there’s another hazard that could have befallen your beloved vehicle: the notorious “courtesy tow.”

Courtesy tows — when your car is towed from its legal spot — are not uncommon. Police records obtained by The Inquirer last year showed more than 2,000 relocations between 2018 and 2020. And they don’t always go well, sometimes resulting in fines and fees, impounding, or just the general inability to locate your vehicle.

» READ MORE: ‘Borderline illegal’: Courtesy tows remain Philly’s persistent parking nightmare

So, what exactly is a courtesy tow, and what should you do if you think it’s happened to you? Here is what you need to know:

What is a courtesy tow?

A courtesy tow is when a legally parked car is towed to another area to accommodate things like special events, construction or utility work, or weather. Formally known as “relocation towing,” it’s done by the Philadelphia Police Department Tow Squad, private towing companies, or, in some instances, the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Courtesy tows often start when someone has gotten a parking-restriction permit from the Philadelphia Streets Department to create a temporary no-parking zone. The reason could be anything from a festival to blocking off space for moving trucks. A temporary no-parking sign is supposed to be posted 24 to 48 hours in advance of the event. But cars can also be courtesy towed in other situations, such as from snow emergency routes.

When your car is courtesy towed, the police are supposed to be given a log of the tow so they can find it — but that doesn’t always happen, which complicates the process of getting your car back.

In one case, a Philadelphia resident was pulled over in Virginia for driving her own car, which she reported stolen when she couldn’t find it (she eventually did, but the car was not removed from a stolen-vehicle database). Another woman was ordered out of her vehicle at gunpoint by police in New Jersey. And others have had to pay hundreds of dollars in difficult-to-fight fines and fees after their cars were relocated to illegal parking spaces.

And this was one man’s experience: “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.”

» READ MORE: Another botched ‘courtesy’ tow: Philly woman pulled over in Virginia for driving her ‘stolen’ car

Where are courtesy towed cars taken?

It depends on who has towed it.

The PPA rarely does courtesy tows, such as during a city-declared snow emergency, says spokesperson Marty O’Rourke; they typically only tow vehicles with three or more delinquent parking, red-light camera, or speed-camera violations, or cars that are in marked tow zones. When the PPA does a courtesy tow, he said, vehicles are relocated within a four- to five-block radius of their original spot.

If your car was towed by the police department or a private company, which is more common, your car may be farther away. There is no set radius for these courtesy tows, though police are “not looking to go farther than necessary,” Inspector Sekou Kinebrew said in 2020.

“As the city gets more densely populated, it becomes more difficult to find spots to place the vehicles,” says Officer Tanya Little, a police department spokesperson. “Oftentimes, it becomes easier to take the cars a little farther where there is room and no daily parking restrictions.”

As a result, the final destination of your courtesy-towed car can vary significantly. Some are moved just a few blocks; others can end up more than a mile away. One popular spot, apparently, is a block near 24th and Ellsworth Streets, where more than 110 vehicles were relocated between 2016 and the beginning of 2020, according to police data obtained by The Inquirer last year. About three-quarters of the cars towed there were moved a half-mile or more.

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

What should I do if I get courtesy towed?

It may not be immediately clear who towed your car, where it was taken, or why. Here’s what you should do:

  • Call the police district of the area in which your car was parked (you can find a map of police districts and their contact info online). Little suggests starting here. Tell them the last known location of your vehicle, as well as its make, model, and tag number. If your car can’t be found in the towing database, you may want to report it stolen. “Barring any direct reason to think the car was courtesy towed, the car can be reported stolen right away,” Little says.

  • If you think your car may have been courtesy towed by the PPA, start by going to philapark.org/tow, O’Rourke says. You will need to enter information about your vehicle; if it was courtesy towed by the PPA, you should be able to find its location. You can also call the PPA at 215-683-9775. But the PPA will only know where it is if they towed it.

  • If your car was towed from a snow emergency route, you can call 215-686-7669 for help.

If you still can’t find it:

  • You can try calling towing companies in the area.

  • Look for your car yourself. Some people have found their cars by walking in concentric circles around the area it was parked — which can take hours. Others have tried calling 911 and had a police officer dispatched to their location to drive them around and look for their vehicle.

» READ MORE: More Philly tips: Read our most useful stories

Expert sources:
  • Marty O’Rourke, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Parking Authority

  • Officer Tanya Little, Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson