Audrey Thompson recently took a lunch break on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh and thought she could get away with parking in another restaurant's lot for just a few minutes.
That's all it took for her car to get booted and a man with a business card to come asking for money.
"He handed me a card that said he was from a towing company and he said, 'You can't remove that. You have to pay me $75,'" Thompson told ABC11. "At that point I really didn't believe him. Other than this card I didn't have any reason to believe him."
Thompson explains she tried to go to the restaurant to verify its contract with the tow company, but she said the driver wouldn't let her do that and instead threatened to tow the vehicle and charge her more money.
"It was at that point I called the police to get someone over there because I felt I wasn't able to leave and I didn't know what else to do," she said.
Raleigh Police gave Thompson news she probably didn't like: the boot was legitimate. Still, she learned she's not alone in her worry about tow truck and parking scams.
According to the Better Business Bureau of Eastern North Carolina, customers submitted 104 complaints against tow companies and repossession services in the last three years. Residents have also called the office with general questions about those companies more than 40,000 times.
Nationally, the BBB reports 3,359 complaints against towing companies and repossession services in the last 12 months.
"I'm lucky I had $75 in my bank account and it wasn't going to cost me rent that month but a lot of people aren't that lucky," Thompson said of her experience.
There are laws on the books to give drivers some confidence, including how and where lot owners should post legible signs and what needs to be on them.
The statutes mandate that on private lots signs must be at 24 inches by 24 inches and "prominently" displayed at all entrances to the lot. The signs must also display the name and phone number of the contracted towing company; if someone else shows up - don't pay up.
The City of Raleigh has its own team patrolling city streets and spaces. A spokeswoman for the City of Raleigh told ABC11 that only RPD and Raleigh Parking have authority to tow a vehicle from a city-controlled street, and boots are based on a three-strike system for unpaid parking tickets.
The City of Raleigh told ABC11 that the peak time for getting towed is from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Most boots are put on vehicles between 9 a.m. and noon, and most parking tickets are written between 10 a.m. and noon.
Drivers who have any questions about the parking signage, rates, parking meters, or regulations in a particular parking zone should reach out to Raleigh Parking by calling (919) 996-3996 during regular business hours.
The Better Business Bureau also shares the following tips for dealing with towing companies:
- Do Your Research. Whether your vehicle has broken down, you have been in an accident, or you feel unsafe driving your vehicle, it's up to you to choose who will be towing your vehicle and to what location. It's always best to research towing businesses before it's necessary to call one; but if you're in a pinch, ask friends and family members to recommend a reliable towing business. If you own a Smartphone you can check out bbb.org to locate reputable towing businesses.
- Know Your Roadside Assistance Policy. Many drivers have roadside assistance through their insurance policy, with a new vehicle, or if they are a member of an auto club, such as AAA. Be sure to understand the terms of the roadside assistance policy and have the information ready for the tow truck when they arrive. It's important to remember to research the mechanic where your vehicle is being towed if it's an unfamiliar location.
- Look Around. If you find yourself in a situation where you think your vehicle has been non-consensually towed, first search the area for warning signs and check the signs for a towing number to call. If you are unable to find a number, call the non-emergency police number to find out if your vehicle was actually towed and where you must go to release the vehicle.
- Understand the Towing Fees. Call the towing business immediately to ask for the towing fees. If you are unsure the towing business has told you the correct amount, call the local law enforcement to confirm the fee. If your vehicle was towed from private property the rates may differ so it's important to verify with your local law enforcement. Be aware tow businesses charge a fee for storage; the longer your vehicle is left with the tow business the more expensive your bill will be.
- Know Your Rights. If you have (1) paid the towing and storage fees, (2) showed a valid photo ID, (3) proven you are the owner or the owner has given you permission to take the vehicle, and (4) you have showed any law enforcement documents, than you have the right for your vehicle to be released. If your vehicle has been damaged during the towing or storing process, you have the right to recover for the damages. Be aware if you don't pay your towing and storage fees the tow business has the right to sell your vehicle to pay for your debt.