The Mobile Police Department (MPD) believes some of the wrecker services it calls on during traffic accidents have been overcharging motorists, in violation of a city ordinance.
According to Assistant Chief Roy Hodge, the issue came to investigators’ attention as the city was reviewing the municipal codes wrecker and towing companies have to abide by if they want to be part of the on-call rotation for accidents MPD responds to.
All motorists have the right to choose the service they’d like to use when they’re in an accident that requires their vehicle to be towed, but Hodge said most people don’t have a preference. In those cases, MPD selects one of a number of companies from a rotating list.
While the city doesn’t police what private towing companies charge for calls they receive on their own, if they’re called to scene by MPD, Hodge said “they agree to follow that ordinance.”
“If your vehicle has to be towed and we call that wrecker off of our list, we have to make sure you’re being treated fairly and that you aren’t being overcharged or charged for services you didn’t actually receive,” Hodge said. “They show up and clear the roadway, which is what our main goal is, but what happens after that we haven’t paid enough attention to.”
However, that appears to be changing.
Last week, Public Safety Director James Barber asked the Mobile City Council to postpone planned adjustments to the ordinance that governs wrecker services so that police could conduct a full investigation into companies that may have been abusing the current system.
As written, those rules put a $125 cap on what companies can charge to tow an average-sized vehicle from an accident. It also sets limits on what motorists can be charged if they have to store their vehicle at a lot owned by the towing companies overnight.
The current ordinance allows them to charge between $20 to $40 per day depending on the size of the vehicle, though it also includes “a grace period” for free storage during the first 48 hours if a car is picked up within five days — a provision that seems to have been disregarded by some.
Hodge says MPD isn’t suggesting all of the 56 towing companies on MPD’s rotating list have been overcharging motorists, but he did say investigators uncovered at least seven businesses that have routinely been running afoul of existing city ordinances.
In all, police say they’ve received more than 30 complaints, but anyone who believes they’ve been overcharged and can provide evidence is asked to contact MPD.
“We work about 1,200 accidents a month and in a little more than half of those at least one vehicle is towed,” Hodge said. “We’ve seen some adding on charges for administrative fees, others have just been overcharging people. A simple tow bill that should be $125, we’re finding some to be $400 to $500, and insurance companies really aren’t asking questions.”
In addition, Hodge said some companies have been charging up to $50 for what are sometimes called “gate fees,” which essentially bills motorists for access to their own cars if they’re stored on a lot that the towing company doesn’t actively staff.
“Let’s say I get in a wreck and I left my wallet in the glove compartment,” Hodge said. “They would charge me a $50 gate fee to send someone there to let me in and get the wallet.”
Currently, there’s no rule against “gate fees,” but one of the changes police were considering in the proposed ordinance would have required towing services they work with make at least one person available during regular business hours at all lots where they store cars.
The inquiry into these companies’ practices started out less formal. Hodge said MPD was initially considering taking administrative actions like suspending or removing companies from the list of services MPD will use.
However, the white-collar unit of the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office has since become involved, which has opened up the possibility of criminal charges under consumer protection laws and potentially for insurance fraud. So far, court records don’t indicate that any charges have been filed as a result of MPD’s inquiry.
After news of MPD’s investigation first broke, some in the towing industry weren’t happy with how it was being portrayed by city officials. That included the South Alabama Towing & Recovery Association (SATRA), whose president called MPD’s comment “irresponsible” and “careless.”
In a press release on June 14, SATRA President Crystal M. Smith encouraged members of Mobile’s towing industry to “hold strong to your integrity in the face of such malicious assassinations being aimed at your person and business.
“We would like to express to the public, that we, in no way, condone overcharging or taking advantage of the citizens of Mobile,” Smith continued. “If such allegations are proven, we completely support any punishment to the offender as may be fitting. However, we also ask that public opinion remain neutral until such allegations are brought to light.”
Ironically, Hodge said MPD officers became aware of some of these concerning practices after a handful of towing companies requested an increase to the maximum rates they’re allowed to charge motorists for towing vehicles under the city’s current rules.
The proposed changes would have addressed that, too, but they’re postponed due to the ongoing investigation. Hodge did say the request itself was reasonable, though. He told Lagniappe the current ordinance and the maximum fees it sets haven’t changed since 2007.
He also noted that Alabama State Troopers and the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office both have $150 limits on fees that towing companies can charge. Working with those agencies, they’re also allowed to bill motorists up to $350 if a tow requires the use of a more specialized truck.
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