Bandit tow trucks are hooking up the cars of unsuspecting Angelenos and then holding them in storage for ransom, sometimes for thousands of dollars, police said this week.
Authorities say the scam works like this: You're involved in a fender bender and a tow truck arrives. The driver says your airbags alerted him, your insurance company called him, or an automated system like OnStar dispatched him. None of that is true. He'll say your insurance is covering the tow—just sign here. You're distraught, shaken up, and worried. So you do.
But by signing, you've allowed the driver to haul your car away. And then it's gone.
The bandit tow operations, which monitor police radios to get to accidents before cops do, take your car to an impound yard or a body shop, and then they ask for up to $4,000, including towing and storage fees, to get your vehicle back, police say.
They'll try to get the bill covered by your insurance company, they say. The National Insurance Crime Bureau's Doreen Sanchez:
The drivers may say they will take the vehicle to a location of the owner’s choice, but they then take it to an undisclosed body shop that is paying them a kickback. In addition to the exorbitant towing charges, the body shop will add on storage fees while the vehicle sits there as the owner and the insurance company are left in the dark as to where it was taken. All of this is designed to maximize the bill to the consumer.
The scam is on the rise because the state of California has cracked down on another income stream for these tow companies—taking cars from private lots.
That's more difficult to do now because drivers need permission to tow from a lot's owner, lots must post easy-to-read parking signs, and false tows can cost tow companies much more than it's worth, says Det. Ben Jones of the Los Angeles Police Department's Commission Investigation Division.
"Lately, as the state has cracked down on other forms of illegal towing, private impounds, the bandit companies have started looking for other revenue streams," he said.
While it is illegal to come to an accident scene and solicit a tow customer unless requested or flagged down, Jones said, bandit drivers cover their tracks by saying they were requested. That paper victims sign can help drivers bolster their claim, he said.
The drivers target nicer cars that would likely have to be repaired by body shops, Jones said. A car that's not worth the thousands of dollars bandits are trying to get from you wouldn't be game, he said.
But otherwise, victims come from all backgrounds, in all parts of town, Jones said. "They look at the car more than the driver," he said.
These days the LAPD fields up to five calls each day reporting that bandit tow trucks took automobiles from accident scenes, Jones said.
Sometimes cops will go to a tow yard or body shop and "the companies, just to avoid the hassle, will release them."
But often, after drivers have signed on the dotted line, and there's not much police can do, at least not immediately.
Still, they want to know. Jones said officers want to establish patterns—where was the accident, what kind of car was it, what was the driver's background?—because they'll later set up fake accident scenes to nab the drivers. Call 323-680-4TOW to report a suspected bandit-tow incident.
"We'll do a sting in the area and see if we can catch them in the act and prosecute," he said. "So it's important to know where these things are occurring."
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Authorities say that if you're involved in an accident and police or traffic officers have arrived, let them call an Official Police Garage tow truck, the likes of which have city regulated tow and storage prices.
If you're a member of the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA) or if you subscribe to a similar drivers' assistance service, call that organization for a tow and make sure the driver who arrives is a genuine representative.
"Don't take a tow you didn't request," Jones said.