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Pretoria - Tow-truck operators are regularly accused of using dodgy tactics to hook up accident victims’ cars, later demanding exorbitant towing, storage and security fees from the owners for the release of their vehicle.
A common trick is for a tow-truck driver to ask the often shocked crash victim which insurance company they are with, claim to be authorised by that insurer, and pretend to call that company on their (the tow-truck driver’s) cellphone, before assuring the driver that the tow is authorised.
The owner then signs the forms and lets the company tow their car away. Later, when they call their insurance companies themselves to follow up on the claim, they discover that no authorisation had been given.
But in Chanel Sewlal’s case, it wasn’t her who was duped by a tow-truck operator at the scene of an accident, but her insurer, Outsurance.
The policy is in Sewlal’s name, but she was not in the car when her husband and two friends were involved in an accident in her Opel Corsa in the early hours of May 11.
Outsurance was contacted from the scene.
One of their agents took over the authorisation of the towing of the badly damaged car from the scene but, a few days later, when Sewlal called Outsurance to find out what was going on with her car, and her claim, she was told that the car had not been recovered from the tow-truck operator’s yard because there had been some of kind of mix-up.
Sewlal said: “I was told that the guy at the scene had pretended to be one of Outsurance’s authorised towers, but that he was with a completely different company.
“I called a few days later and was told that Outsurance had still not recovered the vehicle, because the towing company was demanding a huge sum of money for towing the vehicle and storage fees - about R12 000 - and that he would not release the vehicle into their custody until it was paid.”
“I really need your help.”
“I was assured again that they would sort it out soon but I’ve heard nothing since,” said Sewlal.
I took up the case with Outsurance’s head of client relations, Natasha Kawulesar, last week, and within three days the car had been retrieved from the tow-truck company and the claim settled.
So how did the Outsurance operator that night get duped into authorising the release of the car to the “wrong” tow-truck company?
“Northway Towing is one of our panel members.”
Kawulesar said: “We were talking to our client at the scene, and he handed his cellphone to a tow-truck operator, who said he was from Northway Towing, upon which we confirmed that the car should be towed to the yard of a salvage dealer and that we would pay the towing costs pertaining to our service agreement.
“The tow-truck operator agreed to this, but we later discovered that he had lied – he was not from Northway Towing, but another company, which is not a panel member.
“There was no way of us identifying that he was not a panel member from our telephonic conversation.”
So why did it take 17 days for Sewlal’s car to be retrieved from that tow-truck operator’s yard?
“We should have made a stronger effort to have the vehicle released and we certainly let our client down in terms of her service experience here,” Kawulesar acknowledged.
“We have certainly identified areas where we can improve, such as ensuring our clients are not inconvenienced in any way and the claim is finalised speedily despite the inappropriate actions of the tow operator. We should have had the car removed earlier and addressed the behaviour at a later stage.”
So it seems even insurance company employees fall for the tow-truck misrepresentation scam.
It only works if motorists – or their insurance companies – don’t make the “authorisation” calls themselves.
So, programme your insurance company’s tow authorisation number into your cellphone, make sure it’s the right number, and then, if you’re in an accident and your car needs to be towed, make that call yourself on your own cellphone.
Don’t let a “helpful” tow-truck operator on the scene make that call for you.
If you don’t have motor insurance, key in the SA Towing and Recovery Association’s number. As a free service, the association’s call centre staff – who work round-the-clock – will hook you up with a Satra member in your area and guide you through the whole process.
Phone the association on 0861 072 872 or visit their website for more infromation.