Parking-lot-trap tows, roadside tows: Truckers' defense against predatory practices

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In this week's Overdrive Radio podcast, get into the nitty gritty around "predatory towing," whether after a crash or disabling event at the roadside, or in a parking-lot trap. The episode continues the conversation following the relatively new trucking resource delivered near the end of 2023 -- the American Transportation Research Institute’s big report on how common outsize tow bills and unethical practices have become. ATRI also included plenty in the way of information to help assess big bills, and tactics to bring them down. 

The Truckload Carriers Association held an online seminar last week in an effort to raise awareness among carrier members there but also highlight some recent-history legislative victories, particularly in Maryland. In the podcast, you'll hear from Dave Heller, TCA senior safety and government affairs vice president, about ways anyone can engage and inform themselves on the issues to help bring change for the better.

Howes logoOverdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and Lifeline rescue treatment to get you through the colest temps, likewise its all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.Yet also: Dive into the work of Overdrive’s own Alex Lockie, who’s been covering the rise in predatory towing over the past year. His early stories over that time -- about parking-lot traps, about cross-town nonconsensual tows with hefty price tags, about tow companies' perspective -- brought a huge response from readers, as he details in the podcast. Likewise, owner-operators have delivered plenty advice to glean about tackling problematic tows, as did the ATRI report, underpinning a new step-by-step guide Lockie authored on how to play defense against predatory practices, published here a few weeks back.

Access that guide via this link. 

That guide's not the end of the story, by any means, though. Stay tuned for further reporting suggested in some of the conversations throughout the podcast. Take a listen:

"What do our readers -- people who are over-the-road, owner-operators -- need to know about this? What can they do about it?"
--Overdrive Executive Editor Alex Lockie, with the questions he aimed to answer with the step-by-step guide to guarding against predatory tows, and dealing effectively with them when they happen

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Other towing resources/stories mentioned in the podcast:

**How one small fleet owner marshaled local ordinances against a parking-lot trap.

**Detail on Maryland towing legislation.

**Detail on Colorado booting/towing legislation.

[Related: Say no to 'legalized theft': More states should act to rein in nonconsensual tow fees]


Todd Dills: Hey everybody. Todd Dills here, your host for this edition of Overdrive Radio. Dropping to the podcast feed January 26, 2024, and live then at the world-famous, the following Monday, January 29th. We're diving back into the nitty-gritty today around the notion of predatory towing, whether after a crash or a disabling event at the roadside or a parking lot trap, following the relatively new resource you heard about a few weeks ago, the American Transportation Research Institute's big report on the commonality of out sized tow bills and unethical practices, including ways to combat them.

The Truckload Carriers Association held an online seminar earlier this week attempting to raise awareness among carrier members there, but also to highlight some recent history legislative victories, particularly in Maryland. We'll hear from Dave Heller, a senior vice president at TCA about that event, and ways anyone can engage and inform themselves on the issues to potentially affect change for the better.

Dave Heller: I think the highlights, obviously, is going to be the cargo issue and not holding the cargo, not holding the truck or trailer. Those are going to be the highlights without a doubt. I think that's one of the most important issues there. And certainly, getting an understanding of what you're going to be charged, whether it's a tow or rate sheet that gets passed the state and getting your towing company of choice. Work with the companies that certainly you like working with and have positive business relationships with are always good things and getting rules like that at the state level would be fantastic.

Todd Dills: We'll also hear from Overdrive's own Alex Lockie, who's been covering the rise, particularly of parking lot trap type situations since early last year, all of which has brought a big response from readers.

Alex Lockie: I don't know, the floodgates broke open. I got a ton of emails from our readers, from other drivers. People kind of saw how I looked into the one predatory towing case and came forward with a ton of their own stories. It was probably the biggest response to an article I'd ever had at that point.

Todd Dills: All that response likewise led insights gleaned about just what is reasonable and not from the ATRI report on predatory towing underpinned a new step-by-step guide on how to play defense against predatory practices published a few weeks back at It was aimed to answer two questions for the readership particularly.

Alex Lockie: What do our readers, people who are over the road owner operators need to know about this? What can they do about it?

Todd Dills: It turned out really well, and I'll post a link to that guide in the show notes, but know that it's not the end of the story by any means. Stay tuned for further reporting suggested in some of the conversations that follow throughout the podcast. There's indeed a lot you can do if you know what you're looking at. As Dave Heller intimated referencing a conversation he had recently with TCA's president about scrutiny of itemized invoices.

Dave Heller: Jim Ward and and I were talking yesterday and he was like this is a lot like getting a hospital bill, when you go in for something and you get a bill that says you need surgical instruments, but at the same point you didn't have surgery, so why would you be getting billed for it? It's a lot like that.

So pay attention to what you're being charged and certainly question it if there are questions that need to be asked.

Todd Dills: After the break, we'll dive in to start with Dave Heller, setting up the reasoning behind the association's recent online seminar, probing the subject of predatory towing. Keep tuned for play more from Alex Lockie too.

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Todd Dills: That's right. Find much more information at H-O-W-E-S, Here's Dave Heller, TCA Senior Vice President of Safety and Government Affairs.

Dave Heller: I think the reality is we wanted to demonstrate that there is a path forward and a lot of these states or a lot of our carriers out there are faced with the unscrupulous practice of predatory towing, right? And certainly, accidents happen and while we're not justifying the accidents, there is a tow that has to go along with it and in some cases you're getting exorbitant fees attached to that tow that can be problematic, oftentimes inaccurate. So this was that opportunity to share with our members that yes, this practice is going on. Certainly, there are things you can do about it in addition to not just saying, "Hey, let's start lobbying this within our state capital and getting this fixed and getting language legislatively speaking at the state level." There are practices that carriers are using right now to help problem solve this issue. Looking at your tow bill and know what it exactly is you're getting into when you're looking at it so that you can assure yourself it is not an overcharge.

So in that case, there were a lot of things going on. As you know, this is becoming an awful practice that is permeating within the industry and some of these bills become quite large when you start to look at them. I'm amazed and always shocked when I see some of them come out and I'm just kind of rolling my eyes going wow, it's good money if you can get it.

Todd Dills: This recent ATRI report did a pretty good job of giving folks a feel for what is reasonable.

Dave Heller: It did. Yep.

Todd Dills: And also, we've covered some of this too outside of that report, but in that report there's a lot of great stuff as well, just being on guard for certain things that are not reasonable, right? Holding the freight hostage kind of tactics and what have you, charging for things that you shouldn't be charged.

And documenting what happens during these tows at the roadside. And if you're looking at the bill and it says, "This happened, we had this piece of equipment there." And it wasn't there or it wasn't there for four hours, it was only there being used for like 30 minutes or something, and yeah, you can dispute that.

Dave Heller: Correct. Is it a legitimate bill? And you kind of hit the nail on the head there. Holding the equipment hostage or holding the cargo for ransom, that can't be done these days, and I think the reality is opening our membership's eyes to some of the practices that are out there that are happening that shouldn't be happening. And I think it's important for our membership to know that there is a way out, there are things that you can do to get your cargo back so that that load does get delivered to where it needs to be going or get your equipment back that's in question. And I think that becomes the opportune time to educate our members on the process that are involved as it does relate to that ATRI report. There's no doubt about it. There are practices in there that you and I, while we read about it, they're living it, and we want to make sure that they understand the implications of it and the ways that they can deal with it.

Todd Dills: TCA's membership is, by and large, sizable fleets. For owner operators and small fleets faced with big tow bills though, Overdrive's Alex Lockie found that playing defense might best start with the partner all have in some form or fashion.

Alex Lockie: The best way to beat predatory towing is to not fight it yourself at all. I mean, you don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole, and the way to do that is to ensure yourself against it. That's what Brand said, he said the top five ways to fight or avoid predatory towing bills, that would be insurance, insurance, insurance, insurance …

Todd Dills: Lockie referenced his talk there with insurance attorney Adam Brand of Brand and Tappley whose advice was also referenced in the ATRI report.

Alex Lockie: Because simply, and especially for the small carrier, if you're a mega fleet insuring 300 trucks, then maybe save on insurance and task your legal department with it, but if you're an owner-operator, then you probably just want to get this off your plate as soon as you can because they are going to hold your equipment hostage. They might even hold the cargo hostage. So as soon as you can hand that over to the insurer sooner, the tow can have some guarantees in place and hopefully give you your equipment back. Also, just being sympathetic, you don't have to deal with the person. When you're getting that ticket or the tow bill or something, it'd make you very angry to read the numbers there, right?

And the way to ... After insurance, the most important thing to do is document all this stuff, communicate extremely clearly and professionally and in writing, and to do all that when basically anytime you get behind the wheel. And one of these non-consent police ordered tows can happen. It's a terrible reality. They could put a number on that paper that ends your trucking business, right? So you don't want to be in the immediate aftermath of one of these things, and then having to begin ... It's like that giant ticket for like a $100,000 tow is actually your invitation to a long, drawn out court proceeding where maybe you can wrestle back half of that sum.

Todd Dills: Those things are expensive in and of themselves and they can take forever for sure if you can't reach a quick settlement. And I guess another point to emphasize, I think I'm just remembering something from your reporting is that insurance angle, the importance of that, having that provider to sort of walk you through this and kind of relieve you of some of the heavy lift as it were. One thing you got to have in order to make that possible is the right amount of coverage to start, and if the insurer has a really low limit for towing in your policy, they can effectively wash their hands of it pretty quickly and then walk away and say, "It's not my problem." But you want it to be their problem too.

Alex Lockie: Insurers are starting to get the picture that towing bills can be really huge, so they are sliding some clauses in there. Brand said that he saw limits as low as $5,000 or $10,000 on towing, and I know that the towing coverage probably isn't the first thing an owner operator looks at in an insurance policy. They might not look at it at all.

And a lot of the cheaper, more attractive policies out there, probably if they don't already, they're going to start having clauses in there limiting the amount they'll pay on a tow. And that's also where the awareness of predatory towing becomes really important, right? Because if .... Say I am being diligent and I am reading the insurance policy and I see here oh, it says it covers up to $10,000 on towing. That seems like plenty, right?

But then if you don't know that predatory towing is on the rise, these invoices are hitting $120,000 or something, the insurance company ... You don't want to take on the legal fight, the investigation. They don't really want to do it either. They'd probably just rather pay that $10,000, leave you with the rest of the $120,000 to fight over yourself rather than them spend the man-hours and dispute it and all that stuff.

Dave Heller: The one thing I had noted is in a lot of cases it does set up for the ability. There is almost a practice of getting these bills down when you know what you're looking for, and I think the one thing I have learned is know what you're looking at, know what goes into those tow fees, and what goes into the practice of towing at that particular accident because educating yourself on these things will go a lot farther than you could possibly imagine. I think the more you read the ATRI report or get into these webinar type thing, the better educated as a member you are and the better equipped you are to handle situations like this to avoid that practice and realize that. I think highlighting the Maryland case of actually getting these laws changed has been very favorable and it shows that there's a blueprint in this industry for actually doing it at the state level.

And getting a tow or rate sheet or a towing company of choice, so to speak. There is opportunity to do that and I think it's one of those situations, if you can do it in one state, there are several others that will possibly follow suit just because you've laid the blueprint of actually getting it done. And I think that works like a charm. I really do. I think there's an opportunity to follow that same practice and hopefully combat this problem nationwide.

Alex Lockie: The question becomes what is fair and what is enforceable? Because for sure, towing is hard, the equipment costs a lot, and some of these things like if you drive a tanker of hazmat into the Colorado River, then that probably is going to cost a couple hundred grand to clean up. But what they did in Maryland was they had two pieces of legislation pass, and I spoke to Louis Campion about that at the Maryland Motor Truck Association. He said they really framed it in terms of choice like your ability to choose what you buy in life, which in America, we don't like to abridge that for people. It's one of our big rights. So one of the things they pushed was you have to have some choice in the towing company that shows up as long as they can get there in a reasonable amount of time because you're not entitled to block an interstate for until your preferred towing company shows up from three towns over. But what they looked at was trying to require maximum rates.

Todd Dills: Companies had to file maximum rates, right? And I think that's what it was.

Alex Lockie: And this again, is only on non-consent or police dispatch tows. They establish a clear prevention on holding cargo hostage, which is important and also ... And they sought an end to per pound billing, so they would see in the invoices ... And this goes back to being careful with the itemization, they would just write up the tractor trailer that it weighed 80,000 pounds, whether it was loaded, half loaded, empty.

I don't think they're actually putting these wrecked trucks on a scale when they do it. And then most importantly, I think on the backend was they tried to make a system for flagging the bad actors and disputes that happen because these people do have to get on a police rotation, right?

So if you can demonstrate that they're really ripping people off, then the police ought to adjust them off the rotation. And that's the kind of incentive a tower would be really willing to listen to, right? Because they've got a million dollar rotator that if they can't get any work for it, then they're in trouble.

Todd Dills: The Maryland legislation went into effect just this year, not a lot of time under it to see its impacts, as Dave Heller noted.

Dave Heller: I have not yet seen the ramifications or the benefits, but again, just knowing what's out there and what our carriers deal with and knowing the language that Maryland has gotten through, it's going to be a help.

Especially when you work with tow companies that you have a positive working relationship with. If you have the right to choose your towing company, you know you're going to get your equipment back, you know you're going to get your cargo back. You don't have to deal with the hassle of arguing or going down that road to do it. You know basically what your statement of fees is going to be when dealing within that accident and it alleviates a massive burden to you as a motor carrier having to keep track of that and go down that road and having to constantly contest things for a towing company you may not know or may never have worked with. So it's that opportunity to really experience and educate yourself as a carrier to go down that path.

Todd Dills: There is, of course, limitation to the value of that for ... It relates directly to the reality of trucking. What do we do? We move stuff from here, a long way from here, way out there. We probably don't know a tow company out there. What's the solution to that? Are there resources that folks can rely on that ...? I mean, other than just direct research and establishing relationships in the places that you go.

Are there resources for tow companies that are vetted and/or known to be reasonable towing associations, things of this nature, directories of various natures?

Dave Heller: And again, there is a towing association. I'm not familiar with them as much as probably … in my 18 years of experience, I know they do exist.

Todd Dills: The National Towing Association is TRAA, the Towing and Recovery Association of America.

Dave Heller: So, and I would imagine they operate a lot like TCA or ATA and the fact that ... I have the luxury of representing the best companies the industry has to offer. Does that make sense? So I think the same can be said for them. So the reality is yep, you're delivering freight across this country in places you're not always familiar with, and here's where association has its benefits, right? Because we have members all across the country and networking and peer grouping certainly goes a long way when you go to meetings and start familiarizing yourself with a carrier who may be in North Dakota and you've got a load that's going to North Dakota and you happen to be in Virginia.

So some of these things work out very well in terms of giving you a point of contact to reach out to and say, "Hey, I got this tow bill. I'm not too sure if this really is legit or not. Can you help me out?" And I know in this industry there generally are no secrets in safety and we equate predatory towing as one of those types of situations. So this industry has always been one that's willing to bounce ideas off of each other and lend some credence to where credence needs to be lent.

Alex Lockie: There's a lot of great people in towing and recovery, but these associations are beholden to their members, right? And the problem is ... Okay, so I have choice in who my tower is. I'm in a state I've never been to before, and they say, "Okay, do you want to go with Bob's Towing or Jim's Towing?" I have no idea which one of these guys is going to be fair. If I call up Bob's and say, "Hey, you're not a predatory tower, are you?" I'm only going to make him mad, right?

They're really defensive of their industry and of what invoices are fair and predatory towing is like that's a term for people in trucking or passenger vehicles to use. Within the towing industry I can tell you firsthand, they dispute that all of these things are indeed predatory. Some of the invoices are justified, they say.

So what I would recommend is go just commercial. Just find a for-profit business that is like a towing network and says, "I have people in 50 states that will get to the scene of the crash and abide by these rules. We have certain guarantees on the people that we dispatch." So I would just go commercial with that. I think that if you were in the aftermath of one of these situations and you want to report the egregious situation, which is important because far too many victims of these things are so bogged down in the proceedings they don't tell their story to Overdrive or they don't take their story to the state towing association. So I think they can be useful in reporting and dealing with that stuff after the fact.

But just understand that it's a contested idea, it isn't universal that predatory towing is such and such, and some of the people you talk to might dispute it. And in both the case of insurance or a towing network, the idea is just pay a little bit of money to skip that argument, right? Somebody who agrees with you about what predatory towing is and we'll just proceed like that.

Todd Dills: You might just have a trusted network at your fingertips already in the form of the variety of emergency roadside services that exist from the NTTS directory to the networks of tire makers and truck OEMs. It's been a minute since Overdrive covered the evolution of those services since the vast majority of them came fully online well more than a decade ago, two or three in some cases. Stay tuned for more on that front.

I teed up the next subject, parking lot trap type tows with Dave Heller by noting that while the Maryland example didn't cover that fount of particularly egregious activity from some local towing companies around the nation, we do have at least one recent history example farther west.

The Maryland example when it comes to legislation is sort of like the most recent one, right?

But there is out in Colorado also an example that goes back about four or five years ago and they also ... The Maryland legislation applies only to your sort of police ordered tows, I believe.

But out in Colorado it took a little farther and some of what they did, such as sort of outlawing basically the booting, I think, and/or towing of an occupied vehicle is something that hits directly on a major concern of my readership that we hear about far too often, which is this sort of parking lot traps.

That folks are lured into and then booted and/or hooked to and immobilized while they're sitting there. In many cases, sometimes with pay or park at your own risk signs, but often obscure, hard to see, easy to miss. Is there anything that legislatively that can be pursued in that regard, whether at the state level? I mean, is Colorado a good example? I guess is the question.

Dave Heller: And again, there's always opportunity, right?

I think that the underlying theory of let's never assume that our representatives and elected officials know the issue that is problematic for us. So in saying that, engage with your representatives at the state level because this is really a state issue, right? Because you now have positive towing bills in Colorado and Maryland because they've engaged at the state level. Engage with those officials. Point out what has been done that's wrong. Point out the predatory processes that have fallen into place there and where you've been wronged. And I think telling that story has always been a good thing and will continue to be a good thing because the more people we have telling it, the more of an impact it's going to have, whether that's the state level or the federal level that I work at, certainly gets into that game, no doubt about it.

Todd Dills: Yeah. I mean, is there any role for federal legislation in this arena? I mean, is there any jurisdiction, given the nature of a lot of these operations,

Dave Heller: They can take note of it and go down that road, but a lot of these involve state laws, which is what made Maryland so successful because they took it up at the state level.

Todd Dills: I wonder if some of the things we talk about when it comes to reining in some of the big bills that we see from roadside tows where crash is involved, I think some of that stuff can be applied here. In the parking pirate kind of situation as well, but when you start talking about just involving the local tow boards and just researching the local laws that govern these folks because they're different all over the place.

Dave Heller: Correct. It becomes one of those things looking at locally what some of those rules and regs are and getting law enforcement involved at times like that.

When that truck gets a boot on it and the driver's still in there and he's, "I can't possibly move the truck now because you've put that boot on." It certainly makes no sense and going down that road and engaging with the lawmakers, whether it's locally, state, or federal, going down that road, and you probably have more of an impact locally or statewide speaking.

Todd Dills: My esteemed colleague Alex Lockie, answering more or less the same question and thinking about it practically for an owner operator unlucky enough to fall prey to obscured signage or another trap.

Alex Lockie: While this stuff is still kind of fluid and in motion and they're still towing the equipment and that is happening. You have a lot of leeway to keep this going from court and keep this from becoming a drawn out legal battle and stuff. So I think just knowing what you're talking about, being cumbersome about the laws in the town. And it's just like anything else, if you give the tower the impression that this is going to be a tough one, that you're going to assert your right, if you're documenting everything, if there's clear cut documentation where you can just off the top dispute things off the invoice like, "Hey, this equipment wasn't on scene that long." Or especially if you can poke holes in their narrative at any point, it would be good to demonstrate that you are clocking exactly what they're doing and how they're adhering to the ordinances and stuff.

I've seen some cases where they got the entire bill back and some legal expenses because the tow from a parking lot, they didn't store the truck properly on the impound lot, it was elsewhere. Or you can even maybe in some cases press charges. Sometimes the tower will enter the cab with a ... I think it's called the 'Big Easy'. It's like a kit that gets you into car and truck doors, so document any wrongdoing. And we all know just from experience, if somebody's on your back documenting what you do, you're going to stand a little straighter and be a little more cautious. And geez, maybe I would be willing to cut the invoice down just to avoid the person's follow through.

So it all comes down that whole documenting the accident section, I think all of that would apply.

Todd Dills: You can find Lockie's step-by-step guide to defending against predatory practices via the link in the show notes or in the post that will house this podcast at Find the post for January 29, 2024.

I'll also include some links in both places to a few past stories of success that owner operators of small fleets have had documenting this scene of the crime as it were in those parking lot trap situations. One in particular involved what seemed to be purposefully obscured signage. For instance, at least got the tow company sideways with the locale in which it operated. Not a full refund for the ... I believe it was a boot in that particular case.

And as both Alex Lockie's reporting and Dave Heller's commentary on the issue emphasized, if it happens to you, at the very least report any egregious practices to the trucking and/or towing associations. In the case of the trucking associations, the recent history examples of statewide legislation around towing we have came in part as a result of the work of the state associations and others, like of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Dave Heller: Because if you look at Maryland and Colorado, they both are ... They're great associations and they know the ins and outs on the state capital, so certainly be able to tell that story to those that'll listen.

Todd Dills: As noted, find more links to our resources via the show notes wherever you're listening. Overdrive Radio is on Spotify and SoundCloud, Apple and Google Podcasts. Tune in to most any podcasting platform. Subscribe there so you don't miss an episode, and you can find me and all of our episodes at Here's a big thanks for listening.