Towing firms accused of bilking accident victims

February 24, 2009 3:01:57 PM PST
Four Chicago-area towing companies are accused of taking advantage of drivers involved in accidents, overcharging some of their victims by thousands of dollars. The Cook County state's attorney has filed a lawsuit, targeting these towing firms.

Last Thursday, a family with three children in tow, was driving through an intersection when they were hit by another car.

"He hit us so hard that he actually whipped the car 180 degrees to point the other way," said Damion. "So my major concern was getting the kids and my wife out of the car and getting them to safety."

Just after the accident, they were struggling to calm the children when, they say, a driver from Road America Automotive offered to tow their car.

"They would tow the car and all we would be responsible for doing is calling the insurance company and they would make the payments because they were affiliated with our insurance company," said Latoya.

Latoya says Road America Automotive told her the bill was $1,300. On their receipt is shown the actual tow from 115th and Halsted to 131st Street in Blue Island was $375, and there are other fees like an administrative charge for $175.

Road America Automotive is among four companies being sued by the Cook County state's attorney. The complaint alleges fraud and that the companies charged excessive fees.

Road America would not comment by phone or in person about the allegations.

Damion and Latoya's case is not cited in the lawsuit.

That was their only car. The family had already scaled back when Damion was laid off from his it management job before Christmas. As they struggle with what to do, they warn others to be careful of who is towing and how much it will be.

"They lied to us. They told us that we wouldn't have to pay for anything, and come to find out, we have to pay them $1,300 and additionally $50 a day that our car sits there in their lot," Latoya said.

The state's attorney's office said there's actually no standard for emergency towing. A typical range for emergency towing is about $125 to about $250.

The companies named in the suit are Road America Automotive, City Wide Auto, Pro Auto, and Showtime Towing, according to a release from the state's attorney's office. Also named were the owners of the companies: Azzam Al-Hindi, Tareq Al-Hindi, Saher Ashkar and Adel Suhail, as well as several of their agents.

The companies are based in Chicago and south suburban Blue Island.

The suit alleges the companies monitored police scanners and dispatched tow trucks to approach motorists who had just been in accidents, the release said. They would get consent to tow the cars by telling victims the tow would be completely covered by insurance. In some cases, tow truck drivers told motorists they would repair the vehicle at their facility, or falsely claim to "work with" police.

In some cases, the tow truck drivers would tell motorists they would tow the vehicle for a reasonable rate, such as $125 for the tow and $40 a day for storage. But once the defendants had possession of the vehicles, they would refuse to release them unless excessive fees, often ranging from $1,995 to $6,500, were paid, the suit claims. It also alleges the companies padded bills by charging for services never performed and equipment never used.

As a result, many of the vehicle owners were deprived of the use of their cars for lengthy periods of time, and some were forced to obtain loans to stop the accrual of storage fees.

The suit seeks to ban the defendants from defrauding consumers and to cancel all towing contracts found to be fraudulent. It also seeks $500,000 in civil damages.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez encourages anyone who falls victim to towing companies to call the Consumer Fraud Hotline at (312) 603-8700.

The STNG Wire contributed to this report.