PORTLAND, Ore. — Al Cohron admits he made a mistake and deserved to be towed. He was willing to pay. But it’s the extra fees that raised his towing bill to $420 that had the Oregon City man fuming. Storage was $40 per day. The gate fee was $60. And two photos cost him $40.
“There’s nothing you can do. They hold your truck and you are going to have to pay it,” said Cohron. “It’s ridiculous.”
Over the past three months, dozens of consumers have called KGW news to complain about towing costs after seeing our on-going investigation into a Salem tow operation accused of charging customer excessive rates.
“People are really interested in this and think something needs to be fixed,” said Senator Chuck Riley, D- Hilllsboro. “I want to thank you for putting it on people’s agenda.”
The state lawmaker is proposing new legislation to help prevent predatory towing. That’s when questionable companies troll private parking lots looking to tow vehicles and then charge the owners a hefty price to get their car back.
If approved, Senate Bill 117 would require “at the time of the tow” “signed authorization” from the property owner or manager. That means someone has to sign off on each and every tow.
“The real problem is the taking of cars that shouldn’t be taken,” said Sen. Riley.
But some consumers argue the proposed law doesn’t go far enough.
“They need to cap the price,” explained Kevin Tennant of Salem. His car was towed from his apartment complex because it didn’t have a parking sticker on the windshield. He paid $445 to recover the vehicle the following morning.
“They are looking to take advantage of someone,” said Tennant. “It is one thing to charge a normal price when someone is in the wrong, but to triple or quadruple the price is just wrong.”
Several cities including Portland, Gresham and Tualatin have restrictions on what tow companies can charge. Portland’s current ordinance establishes a basic towing fee - which including hookup, dollies, dispatch and photos.
Currently, there is no limit on what tow companies can charge for much of the state.
“Until they change the law in Oregon, they can hold your truck for as much as they like,” explained Cohron, who’s truck was towed.
“We may need to put some limits on costs,” explained Sen. Riley. “But that becomes a little problematic telling private corporations and companies what they can charge.”
“Most of the time most bureaucrats don’t understanding towing,” explained Michael Coe, owner of Retriever Towing.
Coe believes the towing business would be better served with self-regulation similar to other industries. “Much like a doctors’ board, pluming or electricians’ board,” said Coe. “That’s what I would be an advocate of.”
“I find it hard regulating the costs because the people doing the regulating won’t understand,” explained Jeff Asher of BC Towing in Salem. Asher believes if existing rules are enforced, the towing industry can weed out any questionable operations.
“Most of the tow operators are very good,” said Asher. “Most of the companies are very good.”
Towing companies defend their rates.
“I don’t feel it is excessive- almost all of the tow companies are within 5% of one another on rates and most of those haven’t gone up in probably 5 years,” explained Coe of Retriever Towing.
Coe said he can justify each charge on a customer’s bill including storage, gate and photo fees.
In the case of Al Cohron- the Oregon City man said he was charged $40 for storage by Retriever even though his truck was in the impound lot for just 35 minutes.
“Once it hits our lot, we’ve got to charge for storage,” said Coe of Retriever Towing who explained the storage fee also helps cover the building, lease, taxes, utilities, insurance and security. “We have to make sure the vehicle and its contents are all safe.”
Cohron complained the $60 gate fee was unfair because the tow truck operator was already in the lot when he came to pick-up his vehicle.
Retriever Towing justified the gate fee because it said most releases take 30 to 40 minutes. Often, a driver has to be paged, sent to the lot to release the vehicle and then answer any questions.
Cohron’s bill also showed a photo fee for two pictures. Each photo was $20 bringing the total photo fee to $40.
Retriever Towing said the fee encompasses more than just a photo or two with a cell phone. “We have to snap a picture with the phone, we have a service that we upload to and we have to have redundant data,” said Coe.
The towing company owner added there’s rising labor costs, equipment, trucks, insurance and more- all built into the fees.
“The tow isn’t just the tow itself, it’s the cost of providing the service,” explained Coe.
“People don’t understand the cost of a tow,” agreed Asher of BC Towing, who explained companies also incur the cost of processing and disposal of old junk cars that nobody claims after being towed.
“Out of every 100 cars, you only get 34 of them picked up- you’ve still got 66 sitting out there accumulating costs,” explained Asher. He said the decline in scrap metal prices have greatly reduced revenue generated from recycled vehicles.
Customers say they understand businesses need to make money, but they also feel consumers need greater protection.
“They’re doing whatever they want,” said Tennant, whose car was towed. “Most industries have some type of regulation to make sure we don’t get taken advantage like this.”