- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

Rogue towing companies and their "bandit cranes" can illegally tow cars with impunity because the District's regulation and enforcement system is insufficient, according to a government report, city officials and an insurance investigator.
The Washington Times first reported yesterday that the D.C. Inspector General's Office has uncovered a scheme in which police officers and towing companies collaborate to illegally confiscate cars and charge victims exorbitant storage fees.
Towing companies that are involved in these schemes have little to fear from the D.C. police, according to a confidential report by the Office of D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox, because officers and city workers often do not document and track towed cars, and the District has only one consumer-protection agent assigned to investigate complaints involving more than 50 towing companies operating in the city.
The report recommends that the agent, who works for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), be reassigned to other duties because of "incidents which give rise to the question of a conflict of interest." The man testified on behalf of a Prince George's County towing company that was facing criminal theft charges.
The Metropolitan Police Department opened an internal investigation on Wednesday into the problems uncovered by the inspector general after The Times inquired about the issue. Police officials also are reviewing their business relationship with and oversight of towing companies.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said the five-month gap between the time the report was issued and the internal police investigation was the result of a "communication issue." Police had no record of receiving the report, but officials with the Inspector General's Office told the police they sent it, Chief Gainer said.
Crooked cops aren't the only problem.
"The bandit crane" scam in the District is "common," said Metro Transit Police Sgt. James Holmes, a director for the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators.
"Bandit cranes will pick up vehicles for no legitimate reason except to hold the vehicles for ransom," said Sgt. Holmes, who helps area law enforcement agencies track down stolen autos at impound lots.
The District of Columbia, according to the report and insurance investigators, is in no shape to fight off the bandits.
The city's system for tracking towed cars does not work because it is fragmented, antiquated and rife with the potential for corruption, according to the inspector general report and government officials familiar with the towing industry.
"There is little to no regulation of this industry," Sgt. Holmes said.
The District's towing regulations are "poorly worded, easily misinterpreted and [do] not adequately address the rights of vehicle owners," the report concludes.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau, which fights auto theft and fraud for insurance companies, has identified the District as a problem area for towed cars vanishing without a trace.
"There's been a lot of that within the District," said Bob McFall, NICB's supervisory special agent for the region. "There are some regulations in place, but they are not strongly enforced.
"There is just not any consistency in the regulatory process," he said.
While some towing companies intentionally do not contact owners of towed cars in order to run up huge storage fees, other cars disappear because of the ineptitude of D.C. police officers, DCRA personnel and officials with the Department of Public Works, according to the report.
"This investigation revealed that MPD was not notifying vehicle owners in all cases and that … owners are often unaware of what vehicles have been towed from their property," the report states.
The city's towing laws were written almost 50 years ago, and they have not been updated since 1983.
Erick Gaull, who led a task force to write new towing regulations for City Administrator John Koskinen, blames the "antiquated" regulations for most of the problems.
But the report indicates the problems are more widespread.
The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, charged with regulating towing companies, has "significant deficiencies in the manner that [it] investigates and enforces tow violations," the report states.
Because towing companies are assigned work from the police based on proximity, many provide the city with false addresses, a subterfuge that often goes undetected because the city does not conduct annual inspections to verify information, the report says.
A task force of city officials has written a new set of towing regulations "that will totally bring us up to date and into the 21st century," said Mr. Gaull, director of the operational improvements division of the Office of the City Administrator. The regulation draft is awaiting approval from the District's legal department, the Office of Corporation Counsel.
The regulations call for the Department of Public Works to manage a computerized towing tracking system, but how that system will work and be implemented remains to be seen.
Options include installing computers in tow trucks and towing company offices, mandating that tow truck drivers use two-way pagers, and the use of laptops to document tows.

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