Residents of Los Angeles and some other major cities have another headache to add to their commuting woes — tow truck "bandits" who arrive unsolicited at an accident scene, tow away cars and hold them for ransom for big bucks.
Police say the bandits monitor police scanners and show up unsolicited at accident scenes — often before police or paramedics — and falsely tell the driver they were alerted either by an onboard safety device, deployed air bag or an insurance company.
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They assure frazzled drivers that the tow will be covered by insurance and present paperwork to sign that gives them control of the vehicle.
The car is then towed to a body shop where the owner is later charged exorbitant repair rates or forced to pay a hiked-up tow fee if they decline the repairs.
Bills for some victims have reached as high as $4,000, and the LAPD is fielding up to five calls a day about the scam on its towing complaint hotline, Detective Benjamin Jones said.
The cluster of cases recently led the city and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks such complaints nationwide, to launch a public awareness campaign. Doreen Sanchez of the bureau says similar scams exist in Houston, Chicago, New York City and San Francisco.
The LAPD is also doing undercover stings, with officers posing as drivers who need a tow, but the department is limited because of the small number of detectives it has available for the assignment.
It's illegal for tow truck operators to solicit business unless they are called or flagged down.
Police say some of the operators under investigation claim they were flagged down — and it's almost impossible to prove they weren't.
In addition, the paperwork signed by most victims at the scene that releases their car to be towed undermines a potential criminal case, Jones said.
The tow truck bandits focus on cars that are nice enough to be repaired and avoid older, more damaged cars that might be scrapped instead.
"They're driving nice trucks and they look like regular guys there to help you," Jones said. "They will tell you just about anything you want to hear to get your car from you."
The problem is not new to Los Angeles, but a spike in cases during the past year prompted the National Insurance Crime Bureau to partner with the LAPD for stepped-up enforcement.
Between January 2013 and June of this year, Los Angeles accounted for 42 percent of the 586 referrals to the national organization for inflated towing and car storage bills, Sanchez said.
Police believe the spike involves a new state law that cracked down on another source of income for unscrupulous tow operators — taking cars from private lots.
"It's a mess, so the best thing we can do at this point is educate the consumer that these circumstances are out there," Sanchez said.
To avoid a scam, drivers should ask their roadside assistance provider or insurance company for the name of the tow company that's coming and be suspicious of tow trucks that arrive in less than 20 minutes.
When the tow truck arrives, get a cost estimate before the car is taken away. Write down the truck's license plate number and, if possible, call back the dispatcher to verify the truck that arrived is the same one that was dispatched.
Injured drivers should ask a police officer at the scene to handle the tow instead of signing over the car without the details.