- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

Arlington County officials are working to change a federal law that bars localities from regulating towing companies that have taken advantage of customers.

“Overcharging is a widespread problem in Arlington,” said Mary Alice Gray, team leader of the county’s Consumer Affairs Office.

It’s also a problem in the District, where city officials have been working for more than two years to curb towing abuses.

The D.C. Council on Wednesday will hold a hearing on new rules that would allow the Metropolitan Police Department to regulate towing yards, equipment and prices. The rules also call for issuing a number to each towed car that allows the city to track the cars, said Leslie Hotaling, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works.

“If we go out to a lot, and a car is there without a towing-control number, we will be able to go after their business license,” Ms. Hotaling said.

The federal government in 1995 eliminated the Interstate Commerce Commission, which allowed localities to regulate every aspect of the towing industry. The next year, the government allowed localities to regulate only towing prices, not industry practices.

Since then, Arlington residents have complained about “predatory” practices, such as towing companies not taking credit cards, searching for cars to tow and overcharging, Ms. Gray said.

Arlington can enforce a cap on towing fees, but that’s where local power ends, meaning officials can’t stop companies from treating customers poorly.

“It’s very frustrating to see consumer abuse and almost have our hands tied behind our backs,” said Jay Fisette, an Arlington County Board member. “It’s OK to have tow companies, but it’s a problem we don’t have guidelines to make it a better experience.”

Frank’s Towing, one of six towing companies in Arlington, was hit Dec. 3 with $2,800 in fines and required to give refunds to 26 car owners it had overcharged.

Officials at Frank’s, which is still in business, did not return calls requesting comment.

The county found that towing companies sometimes charged more than the state limit ($85 on weekdays, $95 at other times), weren’t accepting credit cards and were searching for cars to tow.

Mr. Fisette, a Democrat, said towing complaints rank among the top problems in the county. He is working with U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, to change federal law.

Mr. Moran is likely to introduce a bill in the coming year, said spokesman Daniel Drummond.

“Towing companies are notorious for last-minute surprises and jacked-up fees. The congressman wants to make sure localities can have the power to regulate them,” Mr. Drummond said.

Until the law is changed, Arlington officials are educating property owners who contract with tow companies — businesses like shopping centers or apartment complexes — about predatory practices. Officials also are recommending that businesses use the county’s sample contract in dealing with towing companies. The contract requires that towing companies erect signs that designate towing areas, give change to customers and accept credit cards.

The contract requires that towing companies display the complaint number for the county’s Consumer Affairs Office (703/228-3260).

According to Virginia code, a tow company must release a car if a customer arrives before their car is towed and pays $25, and the fee to remove a “boot” on a car wheel is capped at $25.

Meanwhile, the District is moving closer to regulating towing companies since a 2001 report by the D.C. inspector general found that private towing companies had conspired with D.C. police to confiscate vehicles, hide them from their owners and charge the owners exorbitant impound fees.

The FBI in 2002 concluded a four-year undercover investigation of corruption in the city’s towing industry that resulted in 60 arrests — 29 of which ended in convictions of the towing schemers — and recovery of $2 million worth of stolen cars and parts.

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