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Inquirer Editorial: Rein in tow-truck pirates trolling for illegally parked cars

The asphalt pirates known as tow-truck operators may not be shooting at each other like they did a few years ago, but they continue to prey on drivers in Philadelphia. Complaints have been flooding City Hall about rogue tow-truck operators who exploit lax city enforcement to snatch unoccupied cars from the streets on a whim.

City Council members trying to control the problem must be realistic about dealing with ruthlessly competitive towing companies. Any hope that an honor system can work should be abandoned. The current requirement that operators photograph an illegally parked car before towing would be laughable if it weren't so annoying.

At a November Council hearing, David Wengert testified how the "honor system" really works. He legally parked his car at 15th Street and Washington Avenue, but a tow truck operator put up a fake "No Parking" sign, took a picture of Wengert's car parked by it, and then towed the vehicle to a mysterious location somewhere in the nether regions of Southwest Philly.

An angry Wengert was smart enough about the unconscionable act to file suit. He won, but not everyone has the knowledge or time to sue — and they shouldn't have to.

Mayor Kenney's advisors have been discussing whether the city should hire a private company to oversee towing. But why should taxpayers subsidize a private company's profits with no assurance that the city will properly monitor how that company operates? Needless to say, towing should not be regulated by any private company that also makes its money in the towing business.

Kenney tried to solve towing problems as a Council member back in 2010. That's when blood feuds among towing company operators led to fights over who arrived first at an accident scene. One tow-truck driver was run over and killed; another was shot in the leg; and a towing company accused a competitor of torching 13 cars in his impound lot.

The most common abuses by towing companies, though, have been visited upon traffic accident victims. Their vehicles have often been towed to body shops that kick back bonuses to the towing companies. Many accident victims have had their cars held hostage while exorbitant impoundment fees accumulated.

New rules to enforce towing have helped, but enforcement is still too weak? And as staff writer Tricia Nadolny recently reported, the city has no records of where towing companies have contracts to leave vehicles and no master plan showing where it is illegal to park.

Towing companies have no business regulating where or how long people park their cars. It's lucrative for them because parking violations provide more opportunities than chasing after car accidents to bilk people. But their avarice only adds to the reasons that some people prefer not to come into the city and spend money.

Philadelphia shouldn't allow pirates to take advantage of motorists. At the very least, it should subject towing companies to stricter licensing requirements and make tow-truck operators that break the rules pay fines comparable to the king's ransoms they charge people to retrieve their cars from an impoundment lot.

Inquirer Editorial Board