Consumer guide: Getting off the hook of a predatory tow

7 steps to take if your car is towed 

There it is, that sinking feeling in your stomach when you return to your parking spot, only to find your car is gone. Was it stolen? Did you forget where you parked? Or was it towed? In the final case, you may not know where your car has been taken, how much it will cost to get it back, or what legal protections you have.

Consumer protections for towing vary greatly by state, and sometimes, by municipality. Whether your car was towed, or you want to be prepared for a predatory tow by learning your rights, here are 7 tips to protect yourself:

  1. Learn your rights: U.S. PIRG’s new search tool will answer questions about your state’s consumer protection laws for towing. This will help you recognize predatory or illegal towing practices. Any state laws are the minimum protection you should expect. Many municipalities have stronger protections on certain aspects of towing, such as maximum rates or whether you must be notified.

  1. Contact the local police department: Some states require towing companies to notify the police if your car was towed for parking illegally or any other reason. A call to the local law enforcement’s non-emergency number can help you find your car quickly in those cases.

  1. Review all charges: Read your bill very closely. Allowable rates and charges for towing vary significantly by state. Some locations set maximum rates, or prohibit charges for the first 24 hours of storage. Depending on the state, common overcharges can include demanding a “drop fee” for releasing an incomplete tow, exceeding fixed rates, or charging extra to access personal items in your vehicle. You’ll want to make sure the charges match what you legally owe.

  1. Dispute any damages: Every state has a department that’s responsible for addressing cases of predatory towing practices or damages to vehicles during the towing or storage process. In many states, you could receive a full reimbursement or even additional compensation for an illegal or careless tow.

  2. Be proactive: Try to avoid a day-wrecking tow. Pay attention to signs in private or public parking lots and on city streets. Note how long you can be parked in a retail area and whether a city may restrict parking on public streets when, for example, there’s snowfall exceeding two inches or on certain days for street cleaning. 

  1. Make a call: If your vehicle breaks down, won’t start or has a flat tire, either on private or public property, put a big note on your dashboard or under your windshield wiper (or both) and notify someone that you’re having car trouble and you’re getting help. If you’re on a public street, call the non-emergency number of the local law enforcement department. If you’re on private property, notify a manager of the store, restaurant, etc and get their name.

  2. Update your information: If you moved or changed phone numbers since you last renewed your vehicle registration, make sure your state department of motor vehicles has your current contact information. These would be the records law enforcement would access if your vehicle is towed or found stolen and abandoned.