IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Some tow trucks target shoppers, snatch cars in minutes

Earlier this week, John Hoydich parked his silver Volkswagen Golf in the parking lot of a strip mall in Bethesda, Maryland, and went shopping at a nearby cellphone store attached to the lot. When he came out after about half an hour, his vehicle was departing without him — behind a tow truck.

"It's complete bull," Hoydich said. "I come out, and it's being towed away as I'm walking there, standing there in front of the store.

"I couldn't catch him," Hoydich added. "He was already driving away. I couldn't stop him."

The tow was completely legal, because Hoydich had parked in front of a sign that said he could be towed. In just minutes, his car was gone.

Eric Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection in Montgomery County, Maryland, says the rapid vehicle-towing is a growing problem, even if it's technically legal.

"This law was designed to create a balance in a shopping center so that a merchant can make sure that only people coming into their store are parking there. And these tow truck operators have found a way to take advantage of that," Friedman said.

Local NBC stations have documented the issue in other places: tow trucks swooping in within minutes in Washington, D.C., even when parking lots sat mostly empty; trucks towing cars from a Philadelphia lot at a rate of dozens per week. 

"These towers are acting as judge, jury, and jailer," Friedman said. "They decide if there's been a violation. They swoop in and attach the vehicle. They remove it and they hold it until a fee is paid." 

And those fees can run as high as several hundred dollars. "The average tow is at least $150," Friedman said.

To find out just how quickly a vehicle can get towed, a Rossen Reports producer parked her van in a Bethesda lot. The signs said she could only shop at the mattress store there, but she ran into the cellphone store just next door. 

In just minutes, a tow truck sped into the lot. Though the tow company told NBC News that it does not use spotters to monitor motorists' movements after they have parked, the tow truck driver went straight to the producer's van and raced to hook up it up as quickly as possible.

Identifying himself, TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen interrupted the tow truck driver just as he was about to haul the van away. "She just parked here literally about 10 minutes ago," Rossen said. "And you're already towing it?"

"Ten minutes is a long time," the tow truck driver replied. "Five seconds, if she would have walked off the property, I would still [have] towed the vehicle."

"You're saying if she was gone for five seconds, you'd run in and tow her vehicle without any kind of, 'Hey move your car'?" Rossen asked.

"That's not the job, sir; the job is to tow vehicles that park illegally," the driver responded. "People need to stop victimizing themselves. If you get towed, you need to learn how to accept it and you need to just read the signs properly."

The towing company later told NBC News that "all prototcols and laws were followed."

But some drivers might argue that while it may be legal, there's such a thing as common courtesy. "They should have definitely come into the store and said, 'Hey, you know, can you move your car? If this is your car, please move it,'" Hoydich said. "And I would have moved it."

Experts say there are very specific rules about how these tow companies are allowed to take your car, but they vary from place to place. In some cities, the towers even have to wait for a certain period of time before hooking up your car.

If you think you were towed improperly, you should report it to your local consumer affairs department. They can investigate, and sometimes — because they know the law so well — they can then get your money back for you.  

To suggest a topic for an upcoming edition of Rossen Reports, email us.