Rogue tow trucks face Council’s crackdown

    WHYY’s Dave Davies spoke with the bill’s sponsor, a mom who endured a towing nightmare, and rode along with one of the city’s biggest private tow operators.

    Philadelphia City Council has passed a bill designed to crack down on towers that scoop cars from private lots and driveways and charge nearly $200 to get them back.

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    Council’s bill is intended to help people like Angela Mebane, who was setting out for a shopping trip with her kids on April 1st.

    “So immediately they came running back into the house,” says Mebane, “and said, ‘mommy, the car is gone.’”

    The 2010 Kia sedan was a rental – Mebane’s car was in the repair shop – and it was towed from the lot of her Germantown apartment building, where Manton Towing has a contract to tow illegal parkers.

    “This Manton company, it comes through here regularly – all the time,” says Mebane. “And they just see a car and jump to the conclusion that it’s parked illegal, tow it out. They don’t talk to the manager, they don’t talk to security, they don’t talk to anybody.”

    Mebane said she had a permit from the apartment building on her dash, but after she and her kids walked more than a mile to the Manton lot, the company wouldn’t release her car until she came up with $189 in cash.

    Councilman Jim Kenney says he’s sick of stories like these.

    Kenney’s bill will prohibit a tower from removing a vehicle from a private lot until he’s summoned by the police or Parking Authority, and after the PPD or PPA issues a ticket.

    Kenney says it’s time to crack down on predatory towers.

    “It all winds up being a judgment call on the tow truck operator, whose incentive is to take the car,” says Kenney. “So they’ll find any reason to take the car. The reason we want the legislation is that we want some arbitrator of fact, either a police officer or a Parking Authority agent or enforcement officer to say ‘yes, the car is illegally parked. Yes, here is the ticket. You can tow it.’”

    Manton towing didn’t respond to calls for comment, but one of the city’s best-known towers is proud to stand up for his trade: Lew Blum.

    That’s right, Lew Blum – the name you’ve seen on hundreds of ‘don’t you dare park here’ signs.

    Blum is a real guy, and he grew up in the business. His father and grandfather were towers. He hooked his first car when he was 16. His uncle is George Smith, of George Smith towing. Blum took me for a ride in his truck to talk about the Council bill, and the towing business.

    Blum’s name is all over signs in Philadelphia, and he must be one of the most hated men in the city.

    “It works two ways,” says Blum. “The people I tow hate me, but the property owners love me.”

    Blum says his big and bold signs, required by law, keep private lots and driveways clear. But what Blum really wants you to know is that his trucks don’t just cruise the city checking lots and driveways for a car to hook. He insists he never, ever tows a car unless the property owner or manager requests it.

    No call, no tow.

    After a half an hour, Blum responds to a call about a White Crown Victoria that’s been sitting a half an hour in the lot of a Sunoco mini-mart at 22nd and Walnut. Blum says people try to use the lot as a free Center City parking space.

    As the Crown Vic gets the hook, the store clerk, whose badge reads Turk, confirms he called Blum for a tow.

    “The only way that Lew Blum can come and tow a car, is if we call him,” says Turk. “Now if they ride past, we’ll call them over, and they’ll tow them. That’s it.”

    There’s no central registry of towing complaints in Philadelphia, so it’s hard to judge Blum’s claim that towers never use the hook unless they get a call from a property owner.

    Kenney is skeptical, and says Council has acted to impose some standards on rogue towers

    “This about a half a dozen to seven companies that just totally are pirates out there sailing the seas off the city street trying to steal somebody’s car,” says Kenney.

    Kenney acknowledges that tow victims do get their cars back, but says too many get ripped off.  He acknowledges his bill might delay some legitimate tows, and will require illegal parkers to pay a ticket in addition to towing charges. But Kenney says it’s time to clean up the business.

    Mayor Nutter is expected to sign the bill.

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