Towing fraud rip offs stranded motorists

Mary Lou Jay

When you've broken down on a busy highway, a tow truck that pulls over to help you out of the blue may seem like welcome rescuer. But beware -- that "helpful" tow operator may turn out to be a scam artist in disguise.

"Bandit" tow truck drivers cruise busy roadways looking for accidents or broken-down vehicles, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). A motorist worried about repairs or dazed by an accident may not ask the truck driver who stops what the vehicle towing or storage charge will be.

Once unscrupulous operators tow a vehicle, however, they can hold it hostage until the motorist pays fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Or if the scammers get your insurance information, they may use it to file false claims.

Tow truck scams are becoming more of a problem. NICB, which tracks questionable insurance claims, says that the number of cases of suspected fraud for towing and storage bills increased 103 percent between the third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2010.

Tow truck operators usually are regulated by the state and sometimes by local governments as well. In New Mexico, the Public Regulation Commission's Transportation Division recently issued a warning to tow truck operators after an investigation showed that wrecker services were guilty of offenses ranging from failing to obtain written permission to tow vehicles to overcharging for services. Tow truck operators who violate New Mexico's laws and regulations can face fines of $10,000 per violation.

While it's good to have state regulatory officials keeping an eye on unscrupulous towing companies, it's even better if motorists don't get scammed in the first place. Fraudulent claims raise everyone's auto insurance premiums -- and could get your policy cancelled. Here are some tips from NICB about how to avoid becoming a victim of tow truck fraud:

  • Don't deal with a tow truck driver who just shows up without you, the police or your insurance company calling him.
  • Don't give tow truck operators your insurance information unless you know they were called by you or your insurance company.
  • Check that all the signage on the truck matches what appears on any invoices or documents you're asked to sign.
  • If you don't believe the towing company is legitimate or if the driver becomes threatening, call the police immediately.
  • Get an itemized list of charges before the driver tows your car away. It should include towing fees, storage fees and any miscellaneous charges. If the price seems too high, ask the police or your insurer to call another towing service.
  • Get written documentation of where your car will be towed.

Allstate Insurance has one final tip: When you sign a towing estimate after an accident, make sure that you sign directly under the list of itemized charges. This will prevent towing companies from adding more charges later.

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