Investigation: Exposing towing hot spots in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA - February 24, 2014

In the city where the reality show 'Parking Wars' was made famous, we're exposing the unwritten rules for parking in Philadelphia. Here's what you should know before you snag what you think is that perfect parking spot.

CHECK IT OUT: Map showing where the most cars are ticketed

"They started towing it down the street. There were sparks flying, it was a crazy loud racket," said Daniel Brouse.

Brouse is a freelance photographer who has been tracking one of the city's top tow companies on candid camera.

"When I started filming them, they threatened my life," said Brouse.

His go-to spot was behind the Piazza at Schmidt's in Northern Liberties.

"I thought he was a car thief the way he was breaking into the car," said Brouse. "And then I saw him hook up a tow truck to the vehicle."

Theft is exactly how Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney describes towing in the city.

"They should be arrested because they're stealing the car. There's no difference between a tow truck operator taking a car from the curb illegally and a guy hot-wiring it and stealing it," Kenney said.

The history of aggressive and illegal towing is notorious in the City of Brotherly Love.

"Clearly there are no city signs that say that you cannot park here," said Jadi Gonzalez.

Surveillance video shows within 14 minutes of Gonzalez parking her car on a city street, a private tow truck driver picks it up - and, she says, doing thousands of dollars of damage to the vehicle.

"They said, 'You have pictures, you have surveillance. So just take us to court,'" Gonzalez said. And then, she said, they "hung up on me."

"I mean, it's really hazardous to park here even legally," said Mike Williams.

Williams says his car was not just illegally towed, he says it was moved from his permitted spot in Center City Philadelphia.

"Basically they just lied about where we were parked, since we were in a convenient spot for towing. They just decided to tow us," said Williams.

Action News obtained a list from the Philadelphia Parking Authority of the places where the most tickets are issued for towable offenses.

We've created this interactive map, to alert drivers about the hot spots for aggressive towing in the city.

Third on the list is the 1600 block of Market Street, where nearly 3,000 tickets were written for towable offenses in the last 14 months.

The corner of 13th and Walnut Street comes in second on our list for towing violations.

The top spot in the city is the 100 block of Chestnut Street in Old City, where nearly 5,500 towing tickets have been issued since January 2013.

While the majority of these tows may be legal, Councilman Kenney describes the entire towing system in Philadelphia as "the wild West. There's an industry out there that thinks they have the ability to take advantage of people and steal their cars and hold them hostage for a ransom to get them back," said Kenney.

The councilman says there are some important things drivers should know:

  • Only the Philadelphia Parking Authority can tow from a city street. The only place private companies can tow from is private property.

  • Your car DOES NOT have to be ticketed to be towed.

  • Towing companies can only charge you $175 for the tow, and $25 for each 24 hours of storage. It is illegal for them to charge any fees on top of that.

  • A private towing company has to take a picture of your car before they tow it, and provide a copy at no charge

    "Unless the government is protecting them in some way by locking up the guys who stole their car, or by shutting the business that stole their car, nothing's going to change," Kenney said.

    The biggest problem is there is really little recourse for drivers. Councilman Kenney says no one, not the police or L&I which regulates towing, is cracking down on illegal towing in Philadelphia. He is trying to change that.

    Councilman Kenney says for now all a driver can do if his or her car is missing is call 9-1-1 and report the vehicle as stolen - or sue the towing company.

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