Report: Getting off the hook of a predatory tow in California

Media Contacts
Claudia Deeg

CALPIRG Education Fund investigates consumer protections against exorbitant towing charges

CALPIRG Education Fund

SACRAMENTO —  Every year, millions of Americans have their cars towed without their consent from a private property or public street. Too often, the unknown rationale behind these tows and what to do next can leave drivers stranded and confused. While getting towed is a justified consequence of parking in the wrong place or for too long, most states, including California, don’t offer drivers the decency of basic consumer protections such as maximum rates for towing and storage. And that doesn’t even take into consideration those times when drivers believe they’re towed improperly.

“It seems like everyone has a story of a run-in with a tow truck. When your car gets towed, everything else grinds to halt,” said Claudia Deeg, CALPIRG Education Fund’s Associate. “Not only have you lost your primary mode of transportation, but you’re also trying to locate your vehicle and you’re worrying about mounting daily storage fees. It’s essential to know whether you’re being treated fairly or whether the tow company is acting in a predatory fashion.” 

CALPIRG Education Fund identified 14 common sense towing protections that should be available to consumers in every state. Our report, Getting Off The Hook of a Predatory Tow, outlines protections ranging from who is responsible for damages caused by careless towing, to the maximum rates and fees owed when towed, to whether you are guaranteed the option to pay by credit card. 

“States and cities need to do everything they can to protect their residents against abusive towing practices.,” said Ted Mermin, Director of the California Low-Income Consumer Coalition. “Low-income Californians whose cars are impounded often lose the cars because they can’t pay the accrued towing and storage fees. And loss of a car can easily mean loss of a job and a spiral into financial catastrophe.”

Our research points to two broad issues facing consumers: An alarmingly high number of states have no protections spelled out on towing issues. In addition, too many states have inadequate protections, or the laws on the books are vague and inaccessible to the average consumer. It’s important to note that many municipalities have protections that are stronger than those offered by state law. Some cities have even adopted a “towing bill of rights” to address years of abusive practices. This shouldn’t be necessary; drivers in every city in a state should have the same, strong rights. 

In California, here are the key takeaways: 

  1. California does not have maximum towing or storage rates for involuntary tows.

  2. Towing companies are allowed to patrol or scan private property for illegally parked cars in California.

  3. After removing a vehicle, the tower is required to notify the vehicle owner and law enforcement.

  4. A vehicle owner is guaranteed access to all items in their towed car during normal business hours. 

  5. California towing companies must provide vehicle owners with an itemized list of charges.

  6. Some California municipalities like Los Angeles have implemented their own maximum towing and storage rates that protect consumers locally. 

Predatory practices following an initial tow can include charging exorbitant fees for recovering the vehicle, and in other cases, the driver’s vehicle wasn’t really parked improperly and was towed illegally. An illegal tow and any predatory practices that follow can place significant financial burden onto consumers. 

“Having a license to tow vehicles shouldn’t mean license to steal or extort money from hapless consumers whose vehicles are seized,” said Rosemary Shahan, President of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

Click HERE for California’s full list of protections.

Click HERE for our consumer guide: 7 steps to take if your car is towed.