- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

As a car owner, this could be your worst nightmare come true. Imagine leaving work, stressed after a long day, excited about getting home to the family just to realize that your car is missing. For most people, the first thing that springs to mind is, "It's been stolen. Someone call the police." But what if the police already know of the scam? According to a report by the Office of D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox, "Bandit-cranes can illegally tow cars with impunity because the District's regulation and enforcement system is insufficient."
Apparently, towing companies involved in these schemes have little to fear from the D.C. police, because officers and city workers often do not document and track towed cars. The District has only one protection agent assigned to investigate complaints involving more than 50 towing companies operating in the whole city.
Amazing, Metropolitan Police Department officials say that they have been aware of the problem "for some time" and that they are working to improve the process for recovering stolen autos. A multi-agency task force has written new towing regulations, which are currently awaiting final legal approval, that will include severe penalties for the "shady towing companies."
So what can citizens do to protect their cars from being "car-napped"? In Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, cars can only be towed off public streets at the request of a police officer or other government official. So if a tow truck company acts alone, it does so illegally. The rules on private property are totally different. As long as the property owner posts several clear no-parking signs, a towing company with a contract can take your car if you're in violation and leave it goodness knows where. There is one exception, though. In some jurisdictions, it's illegal for towing companies to hire spotters who report unauthorized vehicles to them, and if you come back right before a tow truck driver is about to hook up your car, you are allowed to drive away for free.
However, if the car is already hooked up, you'll get it back for free in the District. But in Fairfax County, for example, you have to pay $25 and in Maryland, $75. Some jurisdictions limit the amount a tow truck driver can charge you, but the rates vary wildly from place to place.
Unfortunately, since contacting the local police may do precious little good, area drivers have few options. Leaving the car at home and taking the Metro to work could be one option if you dare leave your car out of sight, that is. However, you have to ask yourself if that is a risk worth taking, especially if the police cannot be relied upon for help. Of course, the solution may be to stay at home, lock the doors and watch your car from the window. Doesn't sound like much fun, does it?


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