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Salem tow company accused of excessive fees, skirting the law

<p>A Salem tow company is charging exorbitant fees for basic tow services and the county doesn't have regulations in place to stop it.</p>

Kyle Iboshi

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Portland, Ore. -- It’s bad enough to find your car has been towed. But imagine having to pay $800, $900 or even $1,000 to get it back. And it must be paid in cash.

“These guys are crooked and charging people way more than they should be,” said Jason Wolfe of Albany, who paid $1,100 to get his truck back after being towed by Discount Towing & Recovery.

A KGW investigation found nine consumer complaints against the company have been filed with the Oregon Department of Justice in the past four months.

Many consumers felt the Salem towing company charged excessive rates and failed to follow state law for tow-truck operators.

“I lost a lot of money,” said Maycee Chuning of Salem. She had to pay $866 to recover her Toyota Camry after it was towed by Discount Towing & Recovery.

On August 1, Chuning and her friends went to float the Santiam River. The 17 year old admits she shouldn’t have parked at the Jefferson Thriftway.

The parking lot is clearly marked with signs warning, “Authorized Parking Only.”

When Chuning returned to the store parking lot she found a tow truck operator hooking up her Toyota Camry.

“I told him to stop and he told me ‘No,’” said Chuning.

Under Oregon law, if the vehicle owner is present and the hookup is not complete, the tower must release the vehicle at no charge.

Discount Towing & Recovery hauled Chuning’s car to the company’s Northeast Salem lot. An invoice showed the towing company charged a base towing fee of $500. The dispatch charge was $50, administration cost was listed as $50, and the company tacked on $176 for mileage.

“I was just blown away,” said Chuning’s father, Michael. “You’re helpless. I don’t know what you are supposed to do.”

To compare prices, KGW called three Salem-area tow companies. We described the same 22-mile tow from Jefferson to Northeast Salem. The other tow companies provided estimates of $202, $153 and $143.

There is no state law restricting what towing companies can charge customers. Cities and counties can regulate towing, if they chose.

Portland, Gresham and Tualatin regulate towing. In Portland, the maximum a company can charge for towing a passenger vehicle is $197 plus $4 a mile and $27 per day for storage.

Marion County does not regulate towing.

“They get to charge whatever they want and take advantage of anyone they want,” said Wolfe.

When asked to justify rates four or five times higher than competitors, an employee at Discount Towing & Recovery said, “I don’t have to justify it. Please leave.”

The company did not provide additional comment.

In addition to excessive rates, several customers said Discount Towing & Recovery declined to provide a photo of cars parked illegally. Oregon law requires tow truck operators take a picture of your vehicle to show how it was parked.

“We have called four times and said, ‘Where is our picture? Show us our picture,’” said Janelle Chilton of Albany.

Discount Towing & Recovery towed her vehicle from the Jefferson Thriftway parking lot.

“I paid $858.00. THAT IS ROBBERY!” Wrote Chilton in a complaint filed with the Oregon Attorney General’s office.

Brandon Bodenhamer of Keizer used his cell phone to record an interaction with a Discount Towing & Recovery employee. In the video, Bodenhamer notified the employee that he was recording, then asks the man to clarify if the company followed state law for towing.

The employee replied, “Have a good day.”

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If your vehicle is towed, what are your rights?

Locating your vehicle. The towing company must provide you with their phone number, the vehicle’s location, a list of prices they will charge to recover an impounded vehicle, and which methods of payment they will accept. This information can be provided by signs at a parking lot, on a sheet of paper handed to you, or, if you are not present at the time of the tow, by mail.

Note: There are exceptions to this rule if your vehicle was abandoned, towed on behalf of the police or if your insurance company is paying for the tow.

Recovering your vehicle. You may pick vehicle up between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Monday-Friday (except holidays), and at other times within 60 minutes of requesting the vehicle’s release.

Retrieving urgently-needed personal property. Even if you do not recover the vehicle at first, you may retrieve certain personal property such as prescription medication, eyeglasses, identification, wallet, purse, credit card, child safety seat, etc. If you are not redeeming the vehicle when you retrieve personal property, the only fee a towing company may charge you is a gate fee if it is during non-business hours.

Additional rules for towing companies:

  • A tow truck operator may not monitor a parking lot unless there are signs posted in the lot that tell you what hours monitoring will occur.
  • The tow truck operator must also take a picture of your vehicle to show how it was parked in violation of a parking prohibition posted on a sign at a parking lot.
  • Unless the tow truck operator is towing your vehicle for a motor vehicle road service company, they may not attempt to solicit your business at the scene of an accident.
  • If you are present at the time of the tow and the hookup is not complete, the tower must release the vehicle at no charge. If the hookup is complete, they may charge for a hookup fee, but not for the price of a tow.
  • If the towing company accepts cash, you will get exact change no later than the end of the next business day. (Not all towers carry sufficient change in their trucks.)

If you have questions about towing, or want to notify the Oregon Department of Justice about an individual, company or agency that is not honoring your rights, please contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Hotline by completing a Consumer Complaint Form or calling 1-877-877-9392.

(SOURCE: Oregon Dept. of Justice)