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How to fix Philly: Fighting illegal towing

In Metro's new feature, "How to fix Philly," we take a look at the city's myriad problems. This week: Is a new law to stop predatory towing working?
A Philadelphia Parking Authority vehicle, which ironically has been slapped with a TOW sticker. New legislation is targeting predatory towing companies. (Rikard Larma/Metro file photo)

It’s no hyperbole to say that parking in Philadelphia is a difficult chore.

There’s a reason why, out of any city in the country, A&E picked Philadelphia as the setting for its show “Parking Wars.”

But parking might not be so bad if it weren’t for the scourge of illegal towing, an issue that was targeted by the City Council last year.

In fact, during a City Council meeting to discuss the issue last year, one resident told councilmembers that his car was parked legally, along Washington Avenue at 15th Street, when a tow truck operator placed a fake “no parking” sign in front of his car, took a picture and towed away his vehicle.

According to Eric Bodzin, an attorney for the office of City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, D-7th District, this was far from the only complaint of this nature that he had seen over the last year.

“What we heard from constituents was that vehicles were being removed illegally,” said Bodzin.

But, with recent legislation – which was proposed by the councilwoman – Bodzin told Metro that illegal towing in the city has seen a drastic decrease.

“I’m excited. We’ve been able to make more than a dent,” he said in a recent interview. “I have no doubt that this is making an impact.”

This legislation, which was signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney back in January, requires towing companies to have vehicles ticketed by appropriate authorities before they are able to tow the vehicles from private lots or driveways.

The bill, somewhat, reverts city law to the way it was prior to 2013. That year, in an effort to decrease demand on the city’s police, the law was changed to allow a tow if a photo could show that a car was indeed parked illegally.

Bodzin said this rule led to abuses like the fake "no parking" sign, but it has been addressed through the recent legislation.

“I think this legislation has successfully curbed illegal towing,” he said.

In order to make this legislation successful, he said, the bill allows authorized entities other than the police – like campus law enforcement and the Philadelphia Parking Authority – to ticket vehicles prior to a tow. Lawmakers have worked with these entities to make sure ticketing is more “swift and efficient” than in the past.

“This has allowed them to sort of triage their response to illegal tows,” said Bodzin.

Now, he said, this legislation acts as a deterrent to stop illegal towing scams – like the aforementioned fake no parking signs.

“Tow companies are thinking twice before calling for a ticket when they don’t have the authority to tow,” he said.

But, Bodzin said that the city’s efforts to fight problematic towing companies just starts there.

Also, he said, City Councilman-at-Large Bill Greenlee’s office – along with that of City Council President Darrell Clarke, D-5th District – is working on a bill that would revoke the towing licenses of tow truck operators who respond to accidents and then convince those involved to sign paperwork for exorbitantly high-priced tows. 

That’s a problem, Bodzin said, that targets vulnerable Philadelphians, and they have heard many complaints about it.

Also, the city is currently seeking proposals for the creation of an online database of the locations of all "no parking" signs placed by private towing companies.

He said an online database would allow drivers to know if any parking sign they encounter in the city is legitimate.

“This is an issue that we intend to continue to address,” he said, noting that efforts to combat illegal towing are ongoing.

What does Philly need to fix, and how can we do it? Send your ideas to letters@metro.us or @metrophilly.