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City targets predatory towing companies

Robert Price stared at the empty parking spot on South Broad Street, where he had left his Lexus 45 minutes earlier, and assumed the car had been stolen. Actually, it had been towed.

Robert Price stared at the empty parking spot on South Broad Street, where he had left his Lexus 45 minutes earlier, and assumed the car had been stolen. Actually, it had been towed.

But some would say Price's initial read wasn't far off.

His car was hauled away while he ate breakfast that February morning by a company accused of scamming scores of motorists, in some cases posting "no parking" signs only after drivers had parked and walked away.

"It is a trap," Price, who paid $205 to retrieve his vehicle, said last week.

Similar reports of predatory towing have been pouring into City Hall. In response, officials are looking to overhaul how towing outfits are licensed and regulated. Some admit the current system, which requires truck drivers to take a picture of an illegally parked car before towing it, has been a disaster.

A prime example: the Police Department says some drivers will tow cars into illegal spots, snap pictures, then take off for the impoundment lot.

"Allowing private towers to be judge, jury, and executioner with regards to what is and what is not an illegally parked vehicle clearly does not work," Philadelphia Police Capt. Francis Healy testified at a City Council hearing on the matter last week.

"While not all towers participate in illegal activity, the minority that do, in the process, have undermined the entire reputation of the private towing industry and have irreparably harmed thousands of people throughout the city."

The potential fix is complex.

City officials cite the need for a better way of licensing towing operators, who are licensed both individually and by company. The city also has no records of where companies have contracts to tow. And it has no master map of legal driveways in the city.

Rather than work within the city's flawed system, officials are exploring outsourcing to a private towing management firm. Such a company could manage licenses, provide residents a central place to find out where their car was towed, and accept payment of towing fees, eliminating the potential for overcharging.

"They put in that infrastructure that [Licenses and Inspections] doesn't have," said Karen Guss, spokeswoman for the department, which regulates the industry.

More immediately, Council is expected this week to pass legislation doing away with the photo-based towing system. Instead, tow truck operators will only be able to tow cars after they have been ticketed.

That was the law from about 2010 to 2012. The process, like the current one, wasn't perfect. Residents complained of waiting hours for the police to ticket a car illegally blocking their dumpster or driveway.

Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, who sponsored the new legislation, said "ticket-to-tow" will be different this time because the city is authorizing other agencies, including SEPTA and university police and the Philadelphia Parking Authority, to write tickets.

Healy, however, acknowledged many calls will still come to the Police Department, and asked legislators to keep the law simple so it can be easily enforced. The only exemption would allow unauthorized cars at hospitals to be towed without a ticket.

The Pennsylvania Apartment Association is also seeking an exemption for lots of private apartment buildings. Under the proposed law, managers of those buildings would have to wait for an unauthorized car to be ticketed before having it towed away.

"We're not a part of the problem," said Christine Young Gertz, government affairs director for the association's eastern division. "Why waste their resources and time chasing after what we can handle on our own?"

Others worry the legislation will unfairly punish all tow truck companies. At last week's hearing, Lew Blum of Lew Blum Towing said a few "bad actors" have given the industry a bad name, and suggested the city fine or revoke licenses from companies that violate the current law.

(At last week's Council hearing, a resident accused Blum of being one of those actors, saying Blum's company illegally towed his car. Blum later said he asked the man where it was towed from so he could investigate but that the man did not provide the address.)

Guss acknowledged that the city has not fined or revoked licenses from any tow truck companies. She said the department has limited resources and has instead prioritized the enforcement of safety regulations, such as fire and building codes.

Some residents have taken enforcement into their own hands. In September, David Wengert filed suit against George Smith Towing - and won.

He said he had noticed a small sign for the company when he parked his Honda Civic near 15th Street and Washington Avenue on the morning of Aug. 10. It was on the fence of an adjacent parking lot, and he assumed the company had a contract to tow from the lot. To be safe, he snapped a photo of his car, parked legally.

There is one key difference in the photo taken by a George Smith employee before his car was hauled off - barrels with "no parking" signs directly in front of and behind his car.

Messages left at the company's offices were not returned.

A judge ordered the company to refund Wengert and pay his legal fees. But Wengert, who works for an organization that provides free legal services for low-income Philadelphians, said he knows all too well that most do not have the resources to take their fights to court.

"I don't like bullies," he said. "And that's what these guys are. They're big bullies."