You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I told you this animal is a predator.
But how about this beast?
A couple of weeks ago I learned that the tow truck, too, is a predatory species. That afternoon, I drove to my local Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in Arlington to renew my driver’s license. An hour and a half later, I emerged from the building and found that my car was not in the parking space where I’d left it. At first I thought maybe I’d forgotten where I left my car (it happens), but my car wasn’t anywhere in the lot. A feeling of panic set in. I went back into the DMV office and told the nearest security guard, “My car was stolen while I was in here getting my license renewed!” She looked shocked. Then a woman’s voice called out from the nearby information desk: “Your car wasn’t stolen. It must have been towed. There’s a sign in the lot with a phone number to call for the towing company.”
It turns out that I’d parked in a section of the parking lot that looked for all the world like it was part of the DMV lot, but in fact belonged to the Chevron gas station and mini mart that fronted the main road. The DMV is set off from the main road, so the parking lot I’d parked in was behind the gas station and in front of the DMV building (sorry, no photos to illustrate this). Sure enough, when I looked around I saw a smallish sign near the entrance to the lot that said, “CUSTOMER PARKING WHILE ON PREMISES FOR MOBIL MARKET PLACE / CHICKEN & SEAFOOD / DOLLAR STORE / NO DMV PARKING.” And below that, in larger print, “TOWING AT OWNER’S EXPENSE. 24 hrs,” followed by the name of the towing company and a telephone number. The sign was out of date, since the gas station with market was now a Chevron, not a Mobil. I’m not sure the other businesses listed are even there anymore.
I called the number on the sign and, with barely contained rage, told the man who answered that I believed they had my car. He asked what kind of car it was, I told him, and he confirmed that they had the vehicle. “How much is it going to cost me to get my car back?” I asked. “$115,” came the reply. I can’t recall my exact response, but I know I indicated that they had a good scheme going. No response. (No doubt they’re used to verbal abuse much worse than my relatively tame utterances.)
The towing company’s impoundment lot was on the other side of town from the DMV. I called my husband at work, explained the situation, and asked if he could come pick me up and take me to retrieve my car. Sweet man that he is, he said he’d come as soon as possible. And luckily, his office isn’t terribly far from where I was stuck.
Meanwhile, I went into the Chevron station and demanded to speak to the manager. I asked if she had called the towing company, and she eventually told me (in accented English I didn’t fully follow) that she didn’t have time for such things, that the towing company was responsible. Still fuming, I blurted out: “I’m a journalist, and I’m going to write about this!” She was unimpressed. I left to wait outside for my husband.
When we’d found our way to the towing company’s lot, in a dingy and crowded back alley, I went into the small office to claim my car. I asked the young man behind the window who had alerted them about my car. In a matter-of-fact tone, he told me that the tow-truck drivers patrol that parking lot, wait for someone to park there and go into the DMV, and then nab the car. “It’s predatory,” he said. “Just like when a cop sets up a speed trap on the side of a road and catches you for speeding.” I handed over my credit card, expressed my disgust about the scheme they had going, and reclaimed my car. Again, my complaints did not elicit a reaction.
At home, still boiling mad, I checked our county’s website and found information about towing regulations. The towing company had in fact charged me the maximum fee allowable for towing my car. The website also noted that the towing company must report each car they tow to the police. Aha! I called the county police department, hoping to catch the towing company in violation of the law. But no, the officer I spoke to confirmed that the towing company had reported the towing of my car. I told the officer of the circumstances, and he knew immediately about the operation the towing company had going at the DMV. He told me the setup was completely legal, but admitted it was “sheisty” (coining a new term for unscrupulousness that I assume was derived from shyster). I told him it would make a good newspaper story, and he agreed.
I haven’t decided what my next step will be, but I intend to pursue this further, as the whole deal seems incredibly shady. Why doesn’t the DMV post a prominent sign in that parking lot, warning patrons that it’s not part of the DMV lot? If they can’t post the sign there because it’s private property, they could post the sign somewhere else noticeable, such as in the adjacent row of parking that does belong to the DMV. Or they might at least post a notice on the entrance to the building.
Stay tuned to see if I indeed follow through on this. A friend to whom I mentioned the idea of getting a story about this in the paper told me that he remembered seeing an item about this in the Washington Post many years ago. If that’s the case, the story obviously didn’t do much good.
Photo of tiger and blesbuck from Save China’s Tiger, http://english.savechinastigers.org/.