WANT AN EASY $200? Borrow a tow truck and put up a no-parking sign. Then watch the bucks roll in from people like Samantha Zeno.

She lives with her husband and four kids on Richmond Street near Lefevre in Bridesburg. It's up the block from the defunct Philadelphia Coke Co. - an overgrown, 67-acre former riverfront coal refinery that's uninhabited except on nice weekends when drunken teens get hammered in its jungle.

Midway down the plant's fenced-in Richmond Street boundary is a gated entrance that locals say hasn't been used in decades. Its lock is rusted shut; a tree grows behind it. Neither curb cuts nor painted street lines demarcate the entrance. People have been parking there without incident for years.

But in the last six weeks, someone posted a sign on the gate warning that "unauthorized vehicles" will be towed from the spot by A.Bob's Towing.

The sign was hung behind the gate, its text partially obscured. At night, you wouldn't even see it.

That's where Zeno's husband parked their Kia Sedona on Aug. 7. This time, it was towed. The couple paid $200 to get it back from A.Bob's - more than the $175 fee that had been posted.

At A.Bob's Orthodox Street lot, a sign warns customers that arguing about the tow will bump the retrieval cost to $250. A chained pit bull emphasizes the point. So the Zenos shut up and paid. They were also hit with a $51 ticket from the Philly police for "blocking a driveway."

"This will set us back for weeks," sighed Zeno, a medical receptionist whose injured husband is unemployed.

If the Zenos had tempted fate and lost, I'd call them whiners. Towing companies contract all the time with private clients to keep driveways clear.

But that's not the case. A spokeswoman for National Grid, which owns the old Coke site, says the company never arranged with A.Bob's to hang the sign or tow from that spot.

Which means the Zenos were victims of theft and extortion. At least three of their neighbors were robbed and extorted, too.

A testy guy who answered A.Bob's phone repeatedly refused to put me in touch with anyone in authority. So I don't know if Robert Harrison, owner of the A.Bob's tow lot on Orthodox Street near James, is the boss. The guy on the phone said the tows were legit because they resulted from tickets issued by the police.

"But the tickets resulted from your illegal sign," I protested.

When I asked how A.Bob's planned to repay its victims, he hung up.

City records show that A.Bob's, which has 11 towing licenses, has had past violations for improper signage and fees, overcharging of fees and expired licenses. No one from the 15th Police District has yet gotten back to me, but victims say cops know there's been trouble.

Rachel Johnson's Chevy Cruze was snatched on Aug. 11. Cops advised her to take A.Bob's to small claims court.

Two days later, when Brandon Landolf's Ford Fusion was grabbed, he says a cop went to A.Bob's garage on Landolf's behalf, where he "had it out" with someone there.

"He said, 'This doesn't look good. It'll come back to you,' " recalls Landolf. The clerk grudgingly released the Fusion for $100.

And cops took Gabrielle Bustamanta's report when she complained that an Aug. 8 tow by A.Bob's damaged her Ford Edge.

Jeremy Evans didn't bother the cops when he saw that his Ford Explorer had been ticketed. He instead got in the face of a security guard who patrols the site for National Grid, since the tows appear to happen when that particular guard is on night duty.

"I used to work for a towing company; I know all their scams," says Evans. "I told him, 'If you have me towed, I'll sue you.' "

Evans' Ford was left alone. And last week, his $51 ticket was dismissed as bogus.

It's like the block is being held hostage, says Kelly McDade, who lives on Richmond Street with her mom. Last week, they confronted the same guard when they heard him calling A.Bob's to tow a car that had just been ticketed.

So the guard called 9-1-1.

"He said we pulled a gun on him!" says McDade, who took lots of pictures of the guard. "We don't even have a gun."

Police arrived and deemed the women harmless, McDade says. They never even took their names.

A spokeswoman for National Grid promised to speak with U.S. Security Associates, whose guards have been monitoring the site since last fall. And thanks to intervention from City Councilman Bobby Henon, whose district includes Bridesburg, the offending sign came down Monday.

"I called A.Bob's and told them what they were doing was illegal," says Henon, who interrupted his vacation to address the scam when I alerted him to it. He was frustrated that constituents didn't call him for help when the first car was towed.

"Please tell people to call my office for help with this," he said.

I hope Henon has the power to arrest and prosecute. Because this is one crooked tow job.

To contact Henon, call 215-686-3444 or 215-686-3445.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

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