The complaints are listed by the dozens: people who parked their car in a lot in a busy part of Arlington and were towed within minutes, even though they checked for signs to make sure they were parked legally or they had valid parking permits. Some vehicles towed by Arlington-based Advanced Towing belonged to a restaurant’s own delivery drivers. In other cases, an Amazon delivery truck and a police vehicle were towed. One driver even said Advanced Towing attempted to tow their car while they were still sitting in it.
How does it happen? Hidden in the busy parking lots of densely populated areas like Ballston, Clarendon, Virginia Square, Rosslyn, Columbia Pike, and other parts of Arlington County, spotters hired by Advanced Towing — some of whom are allegedly minors — are watching. These spotters look for anyone they determine to be stepping out of line in parking lots where the businesses have contracts with Advanced.
In some cases, a customer parks in a parking space designated for a business they were patronizing, but then they walk out of that business into another business next door. The spotter sees that, reports it to Advanced Towing, and — bam. That customer gets towed in minutes. Many of those whose vehicles have been towed have said the company damaged their car in the process and said they were threatened or intimidated when they went to get their car and pay the set fee, around $160, to pick it up.
Advanced Towing has proved to be one of the most controversial towing companies in Arlington. The Better Business Bureau has logged 40 complaints about the company over the past three years. The company racked up 210 towing company complaints out of a total of 291 complaints in Arlington between 2016 and 2018, according to Arlington County data. Advanced was sued by then–Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in June 2020, seeking $650,900. But the company was only fined $750 in a ruling late last year. The state’s current attorney general declined to discuss the lawsuit.
Two Tows in One
Arlington resident Troy Kravitz says he was dropping his scooter off at the La Moto Vespa moped dealership in Arlington on Sept. 11, 2021, when his encounter with Advanced Towing began. The scooter was on a small trailer attached to his Ford Focus. He says he parked at an empty Wells Fargo bank parking lot across the street from the dealership, at 3140 Washington Blvd. He says his car and the attached trailer were towed by Advanced Towing in less than five minutes.
Advanced Towing charged Kravitz for two tows, the trailer plus the car. Kravitz says that there was no time for a business to call in a tow that quickly, meaning that there was likely a spotter or someone working for Advanced who saw his car and trailer parked in an empty lot that was not the Vespa lot and swooped in to hook it up and tow it away. And that was just one of the things that seemed wrong to Kravitz about how Advanced Towing operated.
“I looked at what I understood to be the regulations, and it said that cars need to be called into Arlington Police Department within 10 minutes. I called the Arlington police to get their time stamps on when the calls came in, which showed that it wasn’t called in within 10 minutes. And they didn’t include a clear description of where it was towed from,” Kravitz says.
When he called Advanced Towing — which has employees he describes as “rude, dismissive, and threatening” — he eventually got through to owner John O’Neill, who told him that Advanced didn’t have to do any of those things. “They said that the 10 minutes deal is just a gentlemen’s agreement. They don’t actually have to call them within 10 minutes.” O’Neill did not respond to multiple requests for a phone interview.
Kravitz took his complaint to the Arlington Police Department in hopes of getting some answers about what Advanced could and couldn’t do. In a letter to Kravitz after the police concluded their investigation, Arlington County Police Sgt. Kimberly Jones responded that the police department determined that the trailer was considered a separate vehicle according to state code and that the Arlington County code stipulates that reporting tows to police by towing companies should happen “forthwith.” That could mean 10 minutes, if that’s how the judge decided how to interpret what “forthwith” meant.
Jones was well aware of issues with Advanced Towing, Kravitz says. “She’s investigated them in the past. And she seemed to think that the points I was making were very strong, was the impression I got. When I get some correspondence back from her, it basically just absolved O’Neill and Advanced Towing of all responsibility, which is a problematic way to engage with the public,” he says. “The relationship [between O’Neill and the Arlington County police] seems inappropriately close. Inappropriately deferential,” Kravitz says.
Valuable Real Estate
Getting illegally parked cars towed is standard operating procedure for businesses in any large commercially developed area like Arlington County. Advanced Towing is just one of several towing companies serving the area. Parking is extremely limited, and businesses have to protect their parking spaces and provide ongoing access to their businesses by their customers.
At an Arlington County board hearing about towing in December 2016, Chris Raines, the general manager of the Holiday Inn at Rosslyn Key Bridge, a 50,000-square-foot building with 307 guest rooms, said that keeping ample parking in their parking lots is extremely important to their business. “Given our proximity to the Metro, people tend to try to park illegally in our lots quite a bit. We feel that our tools and processes are very just to all parties. Signs are clearly marked within our lots. Parking is at a premium at all times,” he said.
Greg Raines, a supervisor and property manager of Dittmar Company, one of the largest property owners in Arlington County, said at the same hearing that the limited parking for small businesses “is the lifeline to that business. Any time that is spent by a patron searching for a space is possible lost revenue, and worse, a loss of a repeat customer.”
Kate Bates, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said that the towing issue is one of “great importance” to their members. “No one likes having their car being towed,” she told the board at the hearing. “We understand. However, the data the staff reported shows that improper tows in Arlington are extremely rare, and when they do happen, staff has found that it’s not shown to be deliberate.”
O’Neill, a former 13-year member of the county’s seven-member Arlington Trespass Towing Advisory Board (TTAB), also spoke at the hearing and defended his company’s practices. “There’s a misconception that the property owner or business owner lets us tow at will. That is false. Towing is a last resort most property owners have thoroughly examined. It is not a first choice,” he said. “In [a] one-year period, only 10 complaints were sustained as violations of the ordinance out of approximately 18,000 tows. None of the complaints were considered willful or egregious by the Arlington County Police Department. There were more assaults and batteries against my employees last year than there were sustained towing complaints.”
But Kravitz argues that towing practices like those observed by Advanced Towing could have the opposite effect for business development. “I would advise people not visit the Northern Virginia, Arlington, Ballston, or Clarendon area,” he says. “I guess you would say that if [your vehicle] is perfectly parked, you should be safe. But if your car extends over a [parking space] line by even a little bit, I would have no confidence that it would not be towed,” he says.
Advanced Towing on Trial
Court documents from the trial brought by the Virginia attorney general in 2020 show that a couple of the Advanced Towing drivers had been convicted of multiple driving infractions in their work for the company. One of them, Carl Martin, was convicted of seven infractions for improper towing. There were also state registration problems with other drivers.
Erin Witte, now the former assistant attorney general for Virginia and the director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, led the trial for the state. She says the case was about the company not complying with the laws that regulate towing companies.
Witte says one of the issues is the way the contracts with Advanced Towing and its clients are handled, referencing a contract with property owner Capital Ventures in particular. “There were lots of verbal changes to that contract,” she says. “There were email changes to that contract by the owner of the property and Advanced Towing. Those never made it into the written contract. And therefore, if a consumer ever asked to see the actual contract that Advanced Towing relied on to tow a vehicle from that lot, it wouldn’t necessarily include the written authority that they were relying on to tow, the conditions and the reasons for which they could tow. So it’s a much bigger issue than just the permissibility to park in a certain lot.”
She said that the attorney general’s office was certainly aware of the high number of complaints about Advanced Towing in Arlington. “They have a lot of contracts in Arlington and Fairfax County. And so they’re going to perform a lot of the tows.”
At trial, it was agreed that towing can be necessary, especially in a place like Arlington County. “I understand that there is a need for legitimate towing if a customer is impermissibly parked, and the vehicle shouldn’t be there, and the owner of the business wants to ensure that they have parking available for the right customers,” Witte says. “I get that, and I sympathize with that. But it doesn’t need to be illegal, right? It doesn’t need to be unsafe. It doesn’t need to be performed in a way that actually threatens consumers. And the evidence at the trial certainly indicated that.”
In an opinion filed on Nov. 10, 2021, Circuit Judge William Newman fined Advanced Towing $750 for five violations, including not updating contract changes, not safely securing consumer vehicles, and issues with the registration of three of its drivers — basically a slap on the wrist.
What Can Be Done?
Matt Chiste, an Arlington resident who was a member of the Arlington TTAB, says an Advanced Towing incident in 2016 damaged his car, which the company denied. In October 2021, he resigned from the board in frustration, due in large part to what he describes as the preferential treatment for Advanced Towing in his case and other cases, calling it a “criminal organization.”
Chiste now authors a blog about Advanced Towing’s towing practices.
He says that one of the proposals he floated to TTAB as a board member was to add a $5 tax to each of the tows. “There’s 18,000 to 20,000 tows a year, and you could use that tax to pay a mediator so that it’s not the cops that you go to to complain,” he says. “It’s like, hey, I need representation, and I need a consumer advocate, or I need someone who’s empowered to say, ‘No, you can’t charge someone twice for towing a trailer.’”
There’s no incentive for Advanced Towing to do it better the next time, he says.
But there is other recourse in the form of a bill, HB 1218, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, who represents Arlington’s 49th District. “The one issue that seems to unite all of the residents of my community across party lines, more than any other, is the intense level of frustration about predatory towing,” he says. “What the AG lawsuit highlighted was a glaring series of problems with Virginia’s current laws governing towing companies, which my bill was crafted to address.”
The way it currently stands in the Virginia state code, he says, is that the Office of the Attorney General is authorized to enforce the current list of prohibited practices for towing companies, as well as to seek retribution, injunctive relief, and attorney fees from companies who have engaged in predatory practices.
However, the attorney general is constrained by another section of the code that says it can only seek civil penalties of up to $150 per violation if they occur in Northern Virginia.
His bill, which was defeated during the last state assembly session, was designed to ensure that towing is generally enforceable through the provisions of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and to clarify that the Office of Attorney General’s civil investigative demand authority is applied. “So by doing it all through the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, you’re basically opening the ability of individuals to take predatory towers to court as opposed to the attorney general’s office.
“Virginians deserve better than the harsh and haphazard treatment that they received from predatory towing companies,” Lopez says. “This is something that most Virginians have very strong feelings about … I think we need to rein in these bad actors.”
This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.