Vehicles vanishing in Philadelphia after courtesy tows: Investigation

Frustrated citizens have long complained about lost vehicles to being bombarded with parking fines after being relocated.

ByChad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf WPVI logo
Wednesday, October 11, 2023
Following one man's journey to find missing car after courtesy tow
Following one man's journey to find missing car after courtesy tow in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- The city of Philadelphia uses what it calls a courtesy tow system to move legally parked vehicles and relocates them for road work or special events.

The system has been plagued with problems.

Frustrated citizens have long complained about lost vehicles to being bombarded with parking fines after being relocated to a metered spot.

Andrew Zepp is just one of many residents asking the question, "Where is my car?"

Zepp's search began along South 48th Street between Chester and Kingsessing avenues in West Philadelphia at the beginning of June when he returned from vacation.

Signs tied to a tree showed Zepp's vehicle, a 2008 black Nissan Sentra with Pennsylvania plate HST 4327, was moved due to milling work just days after he parked it.

"I came back to find parking tickets that I got through the mail," he said.

Three tickets were issued by the Philadelphia Parking Authority on May 12, May 15 and again on May 18.

Zepp followed the trail to the location on the fines, which pointed him to the 1100 block of South 49th Street.

"I couldn't find my car," he said. "That's when I started to call the PPA. I called 911."

He also called the Investigative Team. We also called the PPA and Philadelphia police. A police spokesperson told us it had no record of a tow.

The PPA only had information on the tickets and also checked its impound lots in an effort to help us find it.

Our next call was to the Streets Department, which is the agency responsible for the milling work.

A spokesperson said its towing contractor moved the car once on May 10, and they said they reported it to the local police district.

"I just want to know where my car is at. Has it been really relocated? Has it been towed? Has it been stolen? I just need an answer," said a frustrated Zepp.

And it seems thousands of Philadelphians are asking the same question.

Arthi Manohar represents more than a dozen courtesy tow victims who have filed lawsuits against the city.

Manohar said the city has failed to provide a publicly accessible database to assist owners in locating and recovering their vehicles.

"This is a multi-level failure at the hands of the city at any stage that you look at this courtesy tow problem," she said. "There is a lack of communication and a lack of notice."

Under the current system, tow companies are supposed to provide police radio with information on its relocation, drop the vehicle in a legal parking spot, and also relocate it within a short radius to be put on a list.

Zepp said that wasn't the case, and Manohar's lawsuits also echo that.

"So the tow companies don't need to necessarily have to comply with this rule that's in place, and we know from looking at records that they largely don't," she said.

Manohar told us she represents one plaintiff who was directed to report her vehicle as stolen. She claims when it turned up, she notified police.

"The police didn't update that in their system, and later pulled her over at gunpoint for driving her own purportedly stolen car," said Manohar.

In Zepp's case, neither police nor the Streets Department could provide further details on what happened. The car has just vanished.

Zepp said police told him to report it as stolen. But he didn't carry comprehensive insurance coverage because of the age of the vehicle, so he is out a ride and the car's value.

It has now been five months and his search in West Philadelphia continues.

"I'm not sure if they're gonna look for it," he said. "I'm still going to look for it."

Philadelphia police have denied wrongdoing in the lawsuits.

A police spokesperson couldn't comment because of the ongoing litigation, but sources told the Investigative Team the courtesy tow system is currently dysfunctional and city officials are aware.

Despite that, nothing has been done.