Mark Nadel is a Bank of Georgetown customer, so he felt comfortable parking his car in the bank’s parking lot on Sunday before he withdrew some cash from the ATM and stepped into the Whole Foods Market next door for some milk.
When he came out of the Friendship Heights store about 10 minutes later, his car was gone. He called the number on a sign in the lot and Rockville-based towing company Diversified Recovery Towing confirmed the company had towed his car.
One problem: When Nadel went to the bank manager the next day, he was told the bank had no contract with Diversified or any other towing company.
“He told me he didn’t care who parked there when they’re closed on the weekends,” Nadel said. “The bank manager was amazed that this happened.”
The bank manager called the towing company and Diversified agreed to refund Nadel the $168 charge. Nadel said he was told by a maintenance man on-site that Diversified towed cars from the lot without a contract all weekend. He went to the Chevy Chase Village listserv today to advise others who might have been towed.
An employee at Diversified’s office in Rockville said the company would not comment on the story.
Eric Friedman, director of Montgomery County’s Consumer Protection Office, said his office has heard about similar stories at the bank location (5410 Wisconsin Ave.). Friedman’s office has been leading the charge on preventing illegal and aggressive trespass towing.
Situations such as the one Nadel experienced on Sunday are common. Friedman said many complaints involve tows that are technically legal, but consist of a tow truck driver pouncing on a car as soon as a customer leaves the business the spot is reserved for. Often, that customer is in a business next door when his or her car is towed.
But in this case, the tow company didn’t have a contract from the business in question. The bank wasn’t even open.
“To me, it’s no different than if I parked my car on a city street and someone came and towed it away,” said Nadel, who took the Metro up to Rockville to retrieve his car.
“I was really pissed off,” Nadel said. “And I know other cars were towed away.”
Montgomery County wants to opt out of a recent state trespass towing law officials say confuses its already stringent regulations against the practice.
But Eric Friedman, director of the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, told a County Council Committee today the state legislator who sponsored the law seems unwilling to allow the county to operate on its own. A towing company recently sued the county and the state for two provisions of the state law, which went into effect on Oct. 1.
“It’s very difficult to know which provisions are in,” Friedman said. “We have this somewhat overlapping, two-tiered system.”
Friedman said one particular problem that has popped up is an extra fee towing companies can now charge to deal with the state’s requirement to send a notice of a tow to a driver and a driver’s insurance company. Often, Friedman said, the towers will send the notice regardless of if the driver has already come to the tow lot to pick up the car.
The lawsuit against the state and county challenges the three-day rule and the state’s ban of “spotters” despite requiring towers to take photographs of people who “walk-off” from the private property their vehicles are in.
Friedman said towers often will tow a driver who briefly walks away from the business that owns the parking spot, whether it’s to send a letter, grab a slice of pizza or enter another store in the same shopping center.
Towing complaints remain the Office of Consumer Protection’s most common, with about 200 complaints a year, Friedman said. He estimated there are about 30,000 trespass tows every year in Montgomery County.
Friedman said State Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Prince George’s County) was not very open to granting Montgomery County a waiver from the law, but that Niemann plans to tighten the three-day notice provision.
Eric Friedman, director of the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, has been a leading advocate against the practice of predatory towing — in which tow companies aggressively and in some cases illegally tow cars in private commercial lots to boost revenue.
But since a new Maryland law curbing the practice went into effect on Oct. 1, there’s been confusion about how Montgomery County’s already stringent regulations are affected. Many parts of the state’s law were already in place in Montgomery County.
The county has asked the state for permission to allow its existing laws to apply rather than the new state law, according to a County Council press release today.
The Public Safety Committee, which includes Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac), will hear from Friedman on Thursday morning. One effect of the new state law is a lawsuit from a local towing company against both the state and county, an issue that could come up during tomorrow’s session.
Office of Consumer Protection Director Eric Friedman was interviewed about predatory and agressive towing practices by ABC’s Jim Avila.
Friedman has been outspoken about the problems caused by private parking lot towing, which continues to be one of the main complaints his office hears. A common example is someone who parks in a space reserved for a specific business in a shopping center. When that person leaves that business for food or another service at a neighboring shop, towers see them as walk-offs and tow their cars.
The maximum fine for retrieval of a car once it gets to a tow company’s lot is $168. Tow companies can charge up to $50 to release a car if a driver returns to the car before it is towed out of a parking lot.
County officials have been working with the state to figure out how new state towing laws will work with existing county regulations. Many of them overlap.
Friedman, who said towing complaints in Bethesda could grow as a result of development and the demand for parking, worked with the county earlier this year to push Congress to enact anti-predatory towing legislation.
Friedman’s segment on “20/20″ is scheduled to run Friday night at 10 p.m. The show is doing a series of “True Confession” reports and tapped Friedman for their episode on towing, which looks at the way tow companies monitor parking lots for potential violations.
Eric Friedman has fielded complaints about aggressive trespass towing for years and despite much publicity about towing practices in private parking lots, the problem isn’t subsiding.
As Montgomery County officials and the County Attorney’s Office figure out how to implement the state’s new towing laws, Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection, says Bethesda’s problem could get worse.
“We would expect things are only going to get worse in Bethesda. With all the construction, we’re losing some of the parking lots,” Friedman said. “We have a post office in Bethesda that has no parking, yet it’s right next to a parking lot for a mattress store and a Verizon store. The number of complaints has stayed consistent.”
Friedman is hosting an online chat Tuesday, Oct. 9 titled “What You Need to Know About Towing in Montgomery County.”
A few days ago, the Office of Consumer Protection got a complaint from a man who parked in a parking lot at supply store Staples. The man said he went in and purchased something from Staples then quickly stopped at a shop nearby to pick up a pizza.
When he returned to his car, it was being loaded onto a tow truck. The tow tuck driver identified him as a walk-off, meaning his car was parked in the private Staples lot but he strayed from Staples.
“That was a $50 pizza,” Friedman said.
Tow companies can charge up to $50 to release a car if a driver returns to the car before it is towed out of a parking lot.
Friedman said many don’t know that rule and think tow truck operators are eliciting a bribe before towing the car away.
The maximum fine for retrieval of a car once it gets to a tow company’s lot is $168.
Friedman said the new state law makes things more complicated. Many of the regulations mirror ones already in effect in Montgomery County.
County attorneys are preparing a comparison chart to present to the state, with the hopes of clarifying how the new rules will work.