Consumer Ed Cafe... Food for Thought Transcript (Tuesday, October 09, 2012)
Eric S. Friedman: Good afternoon, I am Eric Friedman, the Director of the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP). I have worked in Montgomery County's consumer protection office for 30 years. As a Public Safety office, OCP collaborates with other law enforcement offices to protect the quality of life in Montgomery County. Our staff of 15 includes 4 attorneys, a certified automotive technician, a former home improvement professional, various consumer experts including several skilled investigators experienced in towing legislation and enforcement, and a staff of 16 volunteers. Our office handles thousands of individual consumer complaints each year. We recently celebrated our 40th year of public service and we remain committed to our original mission, ensuring integrity in our marketplace. I am looking forward to your questions. Let's get started with a question from our first consumer.
Susie from Rockville
My car was towed to a storage lot 15 miles from where I parked. I read the county code and it said that it could not be towed more than 12 miles. When I called the tower they said it was fine as long as they did not charge more than the 12 miles. Is this true?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Susie,
Simply put, because of the difficulty tow companies have in finding property for storage lots in the county, it is the position of the Office of Consumer Protection, that, as long as the tow company does not charge for more than 12 miles, we will not take enforcement action for a technical violation of this provision. Chapter 30C gives you the right to pursue a violation in court and possibly collect 3 times the amount of the towing charges if you prevail. If you require additional information, please contact our office.
Matt from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
what can private business parking lots owners do that is as effecive as towing as an alternative to ensure the parking spaces they pay for are available? Keep in mind business owners can not ticket cars as would happen in public lots. Also keep in mind that unless there are spotters for walkoffs the tow truck would need to be called by the business owner and ther would be a delay in freeing the space for the cusomers who are entitled to use the parking.
Eric S. Friedman: Good afternoon Matt,
We can understand your need to keep parking spots available for your customers. Towing may not always accomplish that in the most effective way, as you have noted. We have seen some lots where owners have decided to go to controlled entry paid parking with validation available for customers, but we do not know whether that has been effective for them. We would suggest talking to other private business parking lot owners about their ideas and experiences. Please contact our office when you decide how you will proceed; we will be interested to know.
Cindy from Eastern Montgomery
Is there any recourse if my car is damaged during a tow?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Cindy, you will be happy to know that you will always have recourse through the courts for damages. The problem will be proving that the tower caused the damage. You can get a better idea of how successful you might be by taking your vehicle to a certified mechanic or auto body expert. The mechanic will inspect the vehicle to see if you will be able to prove that the damages were caused by the tow. Cindy you may also call our office and we will be happy to assist you.
Eric S. Friedman: Did you know?
Montgomery County Code states that “a trespass towing service must not require a vehicle owner to sign any waiver of the owner’s right to receive compensation for damages to the vehicle.”
Jacob from Silver Spring
My car was missing from in front of my house last week. I called the towers that my property management company uses. They said they towed my car because I was double parked.
When I went down to pick up my car they did not have any proof that I was double parked. How can they just tow my car and not have any proof that I did anything wrong?
Eric S. Friedman: Jacob,thank you for participating today. You will be interested to know that the County tow law does not require the tower to maintain any kind of specific "proof" of a violation. You are correct that this could lead to a difficult situation where it is one person's word against another's. Most likely, the only one who could resolve this would be a judge, and you do have the right to pursue this in court. If the judge agrees with your position, you may be entitled to recover three times the amount of your tow charges. It is within your rights to “have your day in court”.
Derek from Up County
Do companies have to be licensed to tow cars or can anyone do it?
Eric S. Friedman: Hi Derek, companies MUST be registered with our office AND have a contract with the property owner from where they are towing. They must also follow several other provisions of County Code. This might be an excellent business venture for you...I think you can set your own hours.
Eric S. Friedman: Always check your permit!
You must make sure your residential parking permit or handicapped permit is visible and properly displayed every time you park your car. Towers cannot be expected to know that you are authorized to park in a designated space without it.
Andrea from Silver Spring
In the summer my car was towed by my hoa. I got my car back but weeks later I realized my gps was missing. What should I do?
Eric S. Friedman: Andrea,
Thanks for your question. This is a difficult situation, as it appears hard to determine exactly when the GPS disappeared. Without hard proof of when and how this happened, you probably cannot hold the tow company liable. However, your auto insurance carrier may be able to provide some recourse. So, you may be “in good hands”.
Savita from Silver Spring
A tower was in the process of hooking up my car to be towed. I begged him not to tow me because I had to pick up my kids from school. He said he would unhook my car if I paid him $150 cash. Unfortunately, I didn't have that much money with me at that time. I was wondering, if I had called the police would they have stopped them from towing my car?
Eric S. Friedman: Savita,
What a terrible ordeal. It sounds as though your car should have been considered an "incomplete tow" under county law. If that is the case, the most you should have been charged is a release fee, which would be less than the $150 you were told. You could have tried calling the police to see if they would assist you, as they do have the authority to enforce the county tow law. However, they are not always able to respond to these calls. You can always contact our office after you have gotten your vehicle back. While we do not have the authority to stop the tower from towing your car, we do investigate violations of the tow law. I hope your children waited for you in a safe place.
Yasmin from Rockville
I parked at shopping center in Wheaton and ran across the street to the ATM. Not more than 10 min went by and mt car was towed. Is it illegal for the tow company to just be sitting there?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Yasmin,
This is one of our most asked questions from consumers. Unfortunately, county law does not provide for a "grace period" when it comes to towing. The bigger questions in this case are whether the proper public notice was given before your vehicle was towed, as well as whether the proper authorization was obtained prior to the tow. You should check the signs in the lot to see whether they warned of towing for leaving the property. If you have any questions about the signs or authorization, please contact our office.
Elexis from Silver Spring
There is a lot in Silver Spring where the McDonalds closed and they are still towing from there. Can they do this? There is no business going on and no one is using the lot.
Eric S. Friedman: Good afternoon Elexis, I understand why consumers would think that using this parking lot would be okay. Whether or not a business is in operation, it is still located on private property. As long as the owner of the private property is complying with the County tow law, towing can still occur. If you have questions about compliance with the law, please contact our office. But, my advice is don't use this lot. I wouldn't want you to be towed.
Eric S. Friedman: Cash, Check or Charge?
If your vehicle is towed, tow companies must accept payment in cash or by traveler’s check accompanied by reasonable ID. They must also accept at least one other form of payment. Tow companies that accept credit cards, must accept Visa and MasterCard. Tow companies that accept checks, can require reasonable ID. Tow companies do not have to accept a personal check if the vehicle is not registered in Maryland.
Bob from Up County
A woman was taken into police custody in downtown Silver Spring because of an outstanding warrant and her car was towed to a lot in Beltsville. She paid $200 to get the car back and $45 for the taxi to the towing lot. Isn't $200 an excessive charge for towing from Silver Spring to Beltsville? Shouldn't Montgomery County police use only towing companies based in Montgomery County and have the cars only towed to Montgomery County facilities?
Eric S. Friedman: Bob, there are three different kinds of “tows” in Montgomery County; a non-consensual (trespass) tow, consumer requested rescue tow, and a police requested tow. This appears to be a police requested tow that is enforced by Montgomery County Police (240.773.6411). The police set the fees and will be able to provide more information to you. Thank you for your question.
David from Silver Spring
My car was towed from a Silver Spring shopping center on a Saturday evening. By the time got together the money to pay to have the care released and arranged for transportation to the towing lot is was closed. The towing lot was also closed the next day, Sunday. On Monday, when I finally picked up my car the towing lot charged me for storing my car on Sunday. Can your office help me get back this storage fee?
Eric S. Friedman: David, this must have been quite an ordeal for you. The only specific requirement in the County law with regard to hours of operation was that the storage site must remain open for redemption at least two hours after the completion of the last tow. Did you attempt to call the tow company and try to make arrangements Sunday? Our experience has been that, generally, the tow company will try to make accommodations, as long as the caller made an effort during "normal" hours. While it does not help in your particular situation, you may be happy to know that the State tow law that went into effect on October 1 will prevent this problem in the future, as it now requires that the vehicle be available for reclamation 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.
Eric S. Friedman: Tows initiated by Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) are subject to different rates! If MCPD tows your vehicle from the scene of a crash or another type of incident, they regulate the rates that the tow companies can charge. For more information, please contact the MCPD, Abandoned Vehicle Section at 240-773-6411.
Bill from Not from Montgomery County
I was towed from my friends apartment and they said I was there too long but I was there less than what they said. I had to lose a day of work to get my car back. Can I get my money back?
Eric S. Friedman: Bill, let me put on my attorney hat for a moment. Your issue is one involving a dispute of fact, which can be difficult to resolve. However, regardless of whether you were there too long or not, the tow company and property owner must comply with county and state law when a vehicle is towed. For example, there must be adequate notice that you will be towed for staying too long, and authorization must be obtained. Our office can look into whether the proper procedures were followed, and if they were not, you may have recourse to pursue the tower or property owner to get some money back. But don't be a stranger; visit us again.
Jonathan from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
My car was towed. I called a taxi cab to take me to the
Towing lot to pick up my car. They told me that they only accept cash. All I had was a credit card and checks, but I did have my driver's license. I had to pay the taxi driver an extra $25 to take me to an ATM. No one carries cash anymore. Can they do business like that?
Eric S. Friedman: Jonathan,
Good question. This is something that consumers need to know. Towers must accept a second form of payment besides cash. It is the towers' option of whether the second form of payment is a credit card or a personal check. If the vehicle is not registered in Maryland, the tower would not have to accept your check, and you would have to pay cash. If this was not the circumstance under which you were required to pay cash, please contact our office and my staff will investigate the transaction.
Eric S. Friedman: Do not ignore the parking signs!
There is no "grace period" for parking violations before you are towed. Whether you are in violation for one minute or one hour makes no difference. So do not take any chances - it may cost you more time and money than you realize!
Eric S. Friedman: Unfortunately we have to break for a moment, so that I move my car before I am TOWED!
Anne from Up County
I have an assigned space in my community and many times, my disabled son visits me and cannot park close to my house because people just park anywhere. I have tried to tell the association but they are not doing anything about it. What should I do?
Eric S. Friedman: Anne, I will need some more information from you in order to give you a complete answer to this question. Does your son have a handicapped tag or permit? Are there handicapped spaces in the community? It appears that you live in a common ownership community. Are others parking in your assigned space? Please let us help you with this issue. Please contact Investigator Drymalski in our Office of Common Ownership Communities unit, you may be able to file a complaint with our office.
Eric S. Friedman: Our investigators are available daily, Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:00pm. You can visit us at 100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330, Rockville, call us at 240.777.3636 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to being of service to you.
Veronica from Eastern Montgomery
My car was towed when I was visiting my friend. I had put the visitors tag in the car but it must’ve fallen on the seat. Shouldn’t the tow company have looked in the window?
Eric S. Friedman: Veronica, I am sorry to hear about this incident. I am sure that your friend was upset too. Parking permits and tags must be properly displayed and visible to the tower. Unfortunately, the towing firm would not be under a legal obligation to “look” for the parking tag. We may not be able to solve the problem but we can contact the tower and make sure that the apartment complex or HOA is complying with towing procedures. Although it was an expensive visit, I hope that you enjoyed it. Friends are like gold.
Eric S. Friedman: State of Maryland recently enacted a new trespass towing law. This law went into effect on October 1, 2012. Some of the requirements of the State law supersede certain provisions of Montgomery County’s trespass towing law but many of the County law provisions remain in effect. Violations of the State law are enforced by the Police and violations of the County law are enforced by the Office of Consumer Protection. OCP has prepared written guidelines to help towing firms understand and comply with both the State and County trespass towing laws. This information was sent to all the licensed towing firms in Montgomery County and is posted on our webpage.
Holly from Eastern Montgomery
Is montgomery county enforcing the new state towing law?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Holly, this is a very interesting question. The State towing law that went into effect on October 1 is enforced by the police, not the Office of Consumer Protection. OCP is still enforcing the County tow law, as the state law specifically allows for local jurisdictions to have their own regulations. Please check our website at http://bit.ly/Olexm6 for towing information.
Antonella from Silver Spring
I parked my car in a shopping center parking lot in Wheaton. I patronized a store in that shopping center left that store and went to another store in the same shopping center. When I came out of the store, my car had been towed. I was told by the merchants that each space in the parking lot is reserved for parking in a specific store. So, if I had moved my car 2 spaces over, in the same parking lot, I would not have been towed. Is that legal?
Eric S. Friedman: Antonella, there appears to be much confusion on this issue. County law requires that property owners provide public notice before they can tow a motor vehicle from private property without the consent of the vehicle owner. In some shopping centers, each store is individually-owned private property with its own parking spaces. If the property owner provided the required public notice, this would be in compliance with county law. If you have questions about a particular property, please contact our office.
Alban from Silver Spring
What kind of license or certification do you need to legally charge for towing in Montgomery County?
Eric S. Friedman: Alban, in addition to being registered with our office, there may be state requirements companies must follow, as well. For example, the tow trucks have to be licensed by the MVA, the company has to have insurance, and if it is a corporation, the corporation will have to be registered with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. If you're thinking of starting your own business, maybe you can partner with Derek.
Eric S. Friedman: Watch where you "walk off" or risk being towed!
If you park in a commercial business parking lot and “walk off” the lot for any reason (to visit another business, to commute, etc.), you may be towed. Watch for lot signs stating “Customer Parking Only” or “No Walk Offs.”
Benjamin from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
At the Wheaton shopping center, I saw a guy just sitting in the lot watching for people to tow. It seems that this shouldn't be allowed.
Eric S. Friedman: The new towing law enacted by Maryland prohibits “spotters” which is the term used for the practice of lying in wait to find vehicles parked illegally. However, it may not apply if the “spotter” is also the tow truck operator. Montgomery County law prohibits the property owner from receiving a “kickback” from towers. This is the practice that makes people angry more than anything else. Many people feel that this is unfair. We have received numerous complaints from people who have been towed in Wheaton and we are working with the police, elected officials and merchants to see what we can do to improve the situation.
Chester from Up County
I have been towed 3 times since I moved to Montgomery County. Last week I was towed while picking up dinner for my family. I could not have been out of my car for more then a few minutes. By the time I got home from picking up my car the food was ice cold. Is anything being done to limit the power towers have over Montgomery County citizens?
Eric S. Friedman: Chester, that sounds like it was a very expensive meal. The county cannot prevent private property owners from exercising their rights with regard to their property. However, the county does have a law that regulates the practice of towing vehicles from private property without the vehicle owner's consent. Some of the requirements include notice and authorization. Do not hesitate to contact our office to discuss the circumstances of any tow, as we have the authority to investigate compliance with the county tow law. Participation in our "Consumer Cafe...Food for Thought" discussions are beneficial, less costly and have fewer calories.
Eric S. Friedman: Did you know that consumer requested tows are not regulated by the County? When you call a tow truck, the rates that the tow companies charge are not set by the County and therefore the companies are free to charge market rates for their services. Ask the company for their rates prior to allowing them to attach your vehicle.
Elena from Eastern Montgomery
When I was towed from a Wheaton shopping center lot, the store owner had told me that it was alright to park in the space while I was shopping and that they did not call the tow truck. Does the store owner have to call the tow truck for a vehicle to be towed from his shopping center lot?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Elena, this is one that we can help you with if we can get a statement from the property owner or his agent confirming that the tow was not authorized. Proper authorization by the property owner or property owner's agent is required in order for a vehicle to be towed from the property without the vehicle owner's consent. My investigators would love to be "all over" this one. Please contact our office.
Kristin from Silver Spring
How can you find out more information about the tow laws that went into effect oct 1st? Is this law only applicable to Montgomery County or the entire state of Maryland?
Eric S. Friedman: Kristin, the law just went into effect on October 1, and currently does apply to the entire state of Maryland. We have a copy of the law posted on our website along with other valuable consumer resources. Montgomery County also has its own trespass towing law enforced by our office. If you have specific questions, please contact one of our towing experts. If you are interested in this issue or other consumer protection matters, you may want to consider volunteering at our office. Please call us for more information.
Eric S. Friedman: Do you think that your vehicle was illegally towed?
If your vehicle gets towed, but you do not believe the tow was done in compliance with County law, minimize your exposure as much as possible by paying the tow company and picking up your vehicle; then file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection at 240.777.3636.
Eric S. Friedman: This has been an excellent discussion. Unfortunately, we have run out of time before we could answer all of your questions. We will post as many responses as possible to our webpage or will respond to you directly. I hope that the information provided is beneficial to our participants. Our goal is to help you become a wiser consumer. Until we have the opportunity for another discussion as part of the “Consumer Ed Café…Food for Thought” series, please visit our website (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer) to file a complaint or get additional information about our services. For consumer questions or to speak to an investigator, please contact us at 240.777.3636 or by email at email@example.com. To subscribe to our electronic newsletters, please visit http://bit.ly/w7XFdM and select Consumer Protection and Common Ownership Communities.