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Avoid being cheated by rogue tow-truck drivers

February 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Allstate Insurance is putting out a consumer alert warning drivers about tow-truck scams. The alert says some rogue tow-truck operators are patrolling the roads searching for stranded drivers, especially during the rainy season. Hooking up with them can cost you big time.

When cars collide or break down, the scene can become chaotic and emotional. Stuck on the side of the road, the last thing to come to mind is finding someone to haul away your car.

Right now is definitely the busiest time of the year for tow-truck drivers and most of them are legitimate operations, but there are others you need to stay away from.

Last July, Nancy Dempsey's son was in a three-car pile-up. He wasn't hurt, but his car was a wreck.

"Upon arriving, I said, 'Who are all these people? Were they all involved in the accident?' And he said, 'No, mom, they're all tow-truck drivers,'" said Nancy.

At least five were on the scene. The problem? Nancy says that not one was called by law enforcement, roadside assistance or her son. They're known as "private" or "unauthorized" tow trucks.

While many are ethical and legitimate, Frank Scafidi, with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says there are also plenty of cheats. Scafidi says they patrol the roads and listen to police scanners, searching for broken down motorists.

"And then convince the driver that they need to take their vehicle to their yard or to their storage facility," said Scafidi. "And usually drivers are somewhat emotional after an accident and are signing papers. They're not sure what they're signing. They're not reading what they're signing. And that's where the problem begins."

That's because these tow companies may end up charging astronomical fees leaving drivers paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Scafidi says this costly problem is on the rise from coast to coast.

"What we saw when we compared the third quarter of 2010 with the third quarter of 2009 and 2008 was a steady increase in inflated towing or towing storage bills, repair shop irregularities," said Scafidi.

A 103-percent increase, to be exact.

Allstate Insurance was so concerned it put out a nationwide consumer alert, and warns that oftentimes the basic tow charge is just the beginning. Storage fees can also be sky-high.

How do you put the brakes on possible exploitation? Allstate recommends asking the tow-truck driver on the scene for a printed price list. Make sure any documents provided match the signage on the truck.

And when it's time to sign: "Make sure that it's right next to any dollar amount, not leaving any space for any additional addition of charges," said Carlos Machin, Allstate Insurance.

Finally, when possible, use a tow-truck operator vetted by local police, your insurance company or an auto club.

"There will be set pricing, so there will be no surprises to you when you go pick up your vehicle," said Machin.

Here's another problem with those inflated towing bills: Even when you don't pay and your insurance company does, you still pay. That's because when insurance companies are forced to pay these higher costs, then premiums go up as a result.