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Urban Warrior | Life in the dough-away zone

TOM RIVERS PARKED his car around the corner from his office at 10th and Spring Garden streets three weeks ago. A few hours after he parked it, it was gone.

TOM RIVERS PARKED his car around the corner from his office at 10th and Spring Garden streets three weeks ago. A few hours after he parked it, it was gone.

Rivers says his car had been parked near, but not in front of, two garage doors posted with a sign from Northeastern Automotive Group warning that anyone blocking them would be towed.

The towing company told him to hustle up to their office just over the city line in Elkins Park by 3:30 p.m. or wait until the next day to get his car back. Rivers found an empty office when he got there at 3:20 p.m.

Like many before him, Rivers called the Cheltenham Township Police for help.

After three hours, an employee finally showed up to collect the $175 towing-and-storage fee, then told him to head 3 1/2 miles back into the city to get his car. He found it parked on the sidewalk outside a fenced-in lot in Feltonville.

Joe Lewis tells a similar story. His car was towed for being near a driveway on a North Philadelphia street. City law says towing companies can only charge $150 plus $25 a day for storage, but Northeastern Automotive Group hit Lewis with a $175 tow fee and $75 for extra equipment, an illegal overcharge of $100. He said the company gave him back the money when he complained.

Anilda Davila's car was towed last year from the lot of a Northeast Philadelphia store in which she was shopping. She took Northeastern Automotive Group to small-claims court because her car had two flat tires and other damages when she finally got it back. She won but couldn't get the company to pay the court-ordered $1,381.

Cheltenham Township Police have forwarded 21 complaints about the company in the last year to Philadelphia's Department of Licenses & Inspections, which regulates tow trucks in the city. Cheltenham cops regularly encourage people to file complaints with L&I.

Enough dancing around. Let's just say it: It's time for Northeastern Automotive Group to stop doing business in the city.

L&I, which held a hearing three months ago to warn the company about problems, including consumer complaints for overcharging, is getting ready to hold another hearing. This time, it's likely the company's license to tow cars in Philadelphia will be yanked.

I spent four days last week trying to get Byron Tarlton, Northeastern Automotive Group's president, on the phone. Over and over, I got a busy signal. Imagine if I'd been trying to find my car!

Finally I got through, and Tarlton seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about. He said his drivers now take pictures of every car before it is hauled away to prove it was parked illegally.

"That's our punch line on people," Tarlton said. "We don't tow no cars without taking pictures."

Tarlton sent me a picture of Rivers' car sitting in front of the garage doors and then scoffed at the notion that his tow-truck driver could have pulled it into the illegal spot before hauling it away. "That's just crazy," he said.

But that's just what Rivers says must have happened.

"There's no way I'd leave my car between two garage doors," he said.

Tarlton couldn't produce a picture of Lewis' car last week, saying it was stored in a computer he didn't have access to.

Asked about Davila, Tarlton insisted she would get her money.

"Worst-case scenario, we'll cut her a check," he added.

He called back later, saying he already had her check. He admitted she had shown up twice at his office to pick it up but had been turned away empty-handed because he wasn't there to greet her.

Tarlton then promised she'd get her check today.

So why is he so eager suddenly to pay?

I have an idea. Davila filed a lien with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, which plans to auction one of Tarlton's tow trucks this week to satisfy the judgment.

Tarlton thinks I have a grudge against all towing companies because I have written columns in the last six months about problems in the industry. That's a convenient dodge, but untrue.

The fact is, people sometimes park vehicles where they shouldn't and tow-truck drivers haul them away to discourage the practice. That makes the tow-truck drivers about as popular as politicians or newspaper columnists.

City Councilman Jim Kenney says - and I agree - that a few bad towing companies don't represent the entire industry. There are towing companies doing business the right way every day.

Kenney helped shape a deal that will have L&I issue licenses to tow, but share annual inspection duties with the Philadelphia Police Department, which is eager to crack down. That starts when existing towing licenses are renewed in November.

"They're motivated to get the bad guys," Kenney said of the cops. "Hopefully, it will work."

E-mail or call the Urban Warrior tip line at 215-854-4810. For past columns: