Every Northern Virginia driver knows to be on the lookout for what they believe to be those ever-present, sneaky, quick-hit tow trucks.
They seem like hulking transformers lurking around in the shadows, ready to pounce on the unwary. But there’s really more than meets the eye in this business. And tow operators get a bad rap. “We have been called the pirates of the asphalt,” says Fred Scheler, president and CEO of Henry’s Wrecker Service. Henry’s is one of the oldest and largest tow services in Fairfax County. “But we are not the evil menace. We are just doing what we are asked to do.”
Yes, towing is a necessary service in a crowded city. Yes, it’s the business owners who contract with tow services and tell them who to tow and when and why.
But if they have snagged your prized possession, things can get ugly … fast. How ugly?
One man was so enraged by his car getting towed he broke the window then jumped up and down on the car’s hood, causing thousands of dollars in damage to his own car. Another enraged man decided to jump into his car as it was being towed then actually started it up and drove it off the tow truck lift, destroying the front bumper and car’s undercarriage in the process.
Tow truck drivers have had bottles thrown at them. They have had people jump on the truck’s running board as the truck drives away with their car and then punch the driver through the window. People have lain down in the street in front of the tow truck to stop it from taking away their car.
The stories go on and on.
It doesn’t matter to them that they were parked where they weren’t supposed to park. They see their car getting towed and snap.
“People will act violent for no reason,” Scheler says. “You are talking about a car and a $135 fee to get it back. That’s all.”
All drivers go right to that hot-button issue of predatory towing when they complain about getting towed. “There is no predatory towing,” Scheler says. “‘Predatory’ to me is there are no signs on the parking lot and I just take your car,” he says. “That is not predatory towing. That is theft.”
There are five types of towing: public safety towing (working exclusively with law enforcement), trespass towing, repossession, commercial work and tow work requested by the public.
But by far, most of the trouble happens in trespass towing.
“Trespass towing is an absolutely vital service,” says Mary Gavin, chief of police for Falls Church. “We ask the tow companies to be fair, legal and reasonable. That’s what we are looking for here. What they do may be legal, but we get some pushback on being fair and reasonable from business owners who want clear parking spaces for customers.”
Henri Stein McCartney, now the chief of the Fairfax County Regulation and Licensing branch, was a towing incident investigator for seven years. During that time, she says that Fairfax had exactly one case of predatory towing (November 2015). “A tow operator put some signs up at a bank parking lot and began towing patrons from a restaurant nearby that had an agreement with the bank allowing customers to park there after-hours,” she says. “In four days, they towed 22 cars.”
The tow company owner was arrested and charged with 10 felonies—including taking money under false pretenses—and was required to pay back car owners for the tow fees they collected. “That company is no longer in business,” McCartney says.
Tow truck drivers are generally men in their 30s or early 40s, and some will move around from tow company to tow company. But it’s not a job for everyone. “Now with background checks, the driver pool has shrunk,” Scheler says. “You can teach them the trade, and they can make a good living with a GED or less as long as their driving record is clean.”
Industry average salary for drivers in Northern Virginia is $45,000 a year, according to Scheler, with a high end of $75,000 to $80,000 a year based on experience. Turnover at Henry’s runs about 20 to 25 percent, which is about the average in this area.
One of the Henry’s tow drivers, who has been in the business for about 15 years, Dre Corsey has been yelled at and cussed out and has seen normal-looking people get out of control. “But you just have to let them yell,” he says. “If you yell back, it escalates. And if someone pulls a gun on you, you leave. It’s not worth your life.”
“The fact that these drivers don’t snap is nothing short of a miracle,” McCartney says. “They have to put up with a lot of bad behavior.”
Controlling towing operations is a serious issue within each Northern Virginia jurisdiction. Each county has committees designed to review citizen complaints and work with tow companies when there are new state-controlled fees, which are currently set at $135.
The good players in the area make sure they follow the rules, including making sure the tow warning alert is on a reflective 12-by-8-inch sign and is clearly posted at both the entrances and exits of a parking lot.
They want to be a good community partner because this is a capital-intensive business. Property investment can go as high as $5 million, including $500,000 for large tow trucks used to tow semitrucks.
OK, sure, some tow companies will watch parking lots and swoop in and snag a car that is illegally parked. Your car can be gone in seconds; that’s true. It’s not illegal.
But others, like Blair’s Towing and Recovery in Loudoun and Dominion Towing in Falls Church, want their drivers to use their best judgment and allow a little time, 10 minutes maybe, for a driver to move their car.
But it comes down to drivers simply paying attention, Scheler says. “We do a festival in Herndon and put up a big 4-by-4-foot sign saying, ‘No festival parking in this nearby parking lot or you will be towed,’” he says. “Last year, we towed over 100 cars. People pull in, see the signs, but they think it’s not going to happen to them.”