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Tackling troublesome tow truck tactics

Industry news
Johannesburg - Call it Murphy’s Law or bad luck: two weeks after taking possession of my new car, a truck skipped a traffic light and smashed into me. Stupidly, I took the first tow truck to arrive at the scene - only too eager to put the nasty experience behind me. Then the trouble started.

They towed it to a repair centre not approved by my insurance and I was saddled with the excess because the truck driver was uninsured.

Thankfully, I was insured: they negotiated with the company, the car was towed to an approved repair shop and the work was done.

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Companies and lone tow truck operators appear to be charging as they see fit and ripping off consumers. Picture: Alon Skuy

If I hadn’t had insurance, the R4000-odd excess would have been the least of my problems. It happens all too often, with uninsured drivers at the mercy of tow truck operators that aren’t upfront about costs and hold vehicles to ransom. And then the fight starts.

The industry remains unregulated. Barring a few associations, companies and lone operators appear to be unleashed on the public, charging as they see fit and often ripping consumers off.

Many have linked them to gangs: they strong-arm traumatised victims into releasing their vehicles, deceiving people into signing away their property.

Paying thousands a day for storage charges seems to be par for the course - and if you’re not insured, you have no one to fight your battle for you.

Holding car to ransom

Anthony Cupido wrote to me about his brother, who was in a serious car accident. He was taken to ICU and his passenger was critically injured.

Cupido said: “He had bought the car two weeks prior from a friend and hadn’t insured it yet. At the scene of the accident one of his colleagues negotiated with a tow truck driver from Compass Towing to take the car to their storage facility at a cost of R1850 and a few days free storage to give his wife time to arrange for the collection of the car.

“On Thursday I called the company to arrange for the collection of the car. I was informed by a staff member that she knows nothing about the negotiation and that the cost was R5871 and that they would charge R350 storage from Friday if the car was not collected. My brother’s colleague went to the company and when the driver whom he made the arrangement with saw him, he quickly left and they said his cellphone was off. They refused to release the car at the agreed fee.

“I went to their storage facility on Friday and phoned them from there. The staff member was adamant that we had to pay the full amount and refused to release the car at the agreed fee.

“The car is still at their storage facility and I am afraid they will add storage until the car is collected.”

Concerned about the costs, Cupido paid them.

Verbal agreement

I contacted Julian Pillay, the national associational director for the Natal Towing Association, for assistance.

Compass, a Cape Town company, is not part of the NTA (although it was incorrectly listed on its website), but it is a member of the Retail Motor Industry organisation, Pillay told me.

“At the accident scene, a colleague of the injured vehicle owner negotiated with the driver of tow truck to have the damaged car hauled to a storage facility operated by Compass Towing, a member of RMI. A fee of R1850 was verbally agreed, with the proviso that no storage fees would be charged for the first few days.

“Since the scene of an accident is often confusing and stressful, tow truck drivers are in a position to take advantage of the situation. The RMI has learnt that the tow truck driver involved acted without the authority of his employers.”

The RMI called and visited Compass Towing’s premises but could also not get hold of the driver. And the admin office insisted the bill be settled in full.

Two days after the crash, the RMI’s Cape Town office received an e-mail from Cupido, asking it to intervene.

“We contacted one of the business’s shareholders who instructed the admin office to release the vehicle in terms of the original verbal agreement, saying the tow truck driver had neglected to inform management of the details.

“The shareholder, who apologised for any inconvenience the company may have caused, also waived a second towing fee which saw the damaged vehicle transported from Compass Towing’s facility to the injured owner’s house.

If only such professional customer service was the rule in the industry - not the exception.

Pillay provided tips for motorists on how to avoid tow truck trouble:

FAMILIARISE

Familiarise yourself with who to call if there’s an incident. Read your insurance policy documents and know what costs are covered. Knowing who the broker is at the scene of an accident is not sufficient. If you have a “Do not tow" disc/sticker, make sure it’s visibly displayed.

THE INCIDENT

When you’re involved in a crash, call your insurance incident management call centre as soon as possible to report it. The call centre will dispatch a towing service provider or authorise one. Some insurers use cellphone apps, which the tow operator could use to scan your licence disc. There is concern around this though because the apps can divulge personal information. The app may also instruct the driver to take pictures of the scene/vehicles/ID document/driver’s licence.

BE CAREFUL

Fraudulent tow operators pretend to call a motorist’s insurer or incident management centre. If a driver does call, ensure they are given the authorisation or reference number.

CHOOSING TOWING SERVICE PROVIDER

Make sure a towing service provider belongs to a towing association, because they’re able to hold their members accountable. You have the right to select the service provider you want - don’t be strong-armed into accepting a tow. Always obtain a written quote of all costs involved in the recovery and towing of the vehicle before allowing it to be towed. 

If the vehicle is obstructing traffic or causing a danger to other motorists and there are no injuries, a traffic or police officer on the scene may authorise a towing service to move your vehicle to safety. Before this happens, find out if any costs are involved for this emergency tow.

COSTS

Costs could include some of the following: the first tow (within a certain radius), per kilometre rate, salvage rate, storage, second tow or it could be an all-in figure for the job. You could also be liable for clean-up costs.

COMPLAINTS

As soon as there is a dispute, try to negotiate with the company involved. If this fails, contact the association. If they don’t belong to one, contact one anyway for advice on what course of action to take.

Anthony Cupido’s brother is still in ICU and is improving.

The Star

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