DETROIT (WXYZ) - A local towing company is pulling in big bucks by hooking cars at a Detroit shopping center, and people are crying foul.
The question is: Are they towing to preserve parking spots for paying customers, or preying on people for profit?
7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis got a slew of complaints and went undercover to check things out.
He found lots of folks are getting hooked, and they're honked off. They complain about heavy-handed tactics, exorbitant fees, and innocent people being towed.
7 Action News caught the towing company on camera snatching lots of cars, and the owner admitted he is sharing his profits with someone at the shopping center.
At first glance, the Warren Shopping Plaza looks like any other strip mall, but there is something unusual and controversial going on in the parking lot. If you watch carefully you will see the same two people sitting in cars day after day, watching the parking lot like a pair of hawks. They are not mall customers. They are spotters for Larson's Towing, a company that has an " F" rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB). And you are about to find out why.
The spotters sit all day, watching for parking violators. A block away a tow truck lies in wait. The driver has binoculars and a two-way radio. If they see someone park and walk off the mall lot toward the Detroit Medical Center (DMC) next door, the tow truck driver springs into action, rushing to the parking lot in the same kind of rig used by repo men. He backs up to the offending car, slides a platform under the wheels, lifts it up and he is gone in less than 30 seconds.
When the alleged violators call Larson's, they're in for the shock of their life.
Our camera captured one of the violators on the phone with Larson's towing after his SUV was hooked.
"Oh my god that is a rip off! I never heard of that. Why is it so much? I mean if it was $200, $300, it's $400!" the man asked incredulously.
That's right, the towing fee is $400, and Larson's only accepts cash. The cars are towed 18 miles away to Redford Township. If you do not make it by the 5 p.m., which is when Larson's closes, you get clipped for a storage fee.
"And then he was like, 'If you get it tomorrow, it's going to be $40 extra,' so that's why it was $440," said Talisha Taylor, whose car was towed away.
The 7 Action News Investigators watched as Larson's hooked one car after the other at $400 a pop. One man says he walked to the DMC for a quick x-ray. When he came back a few minutes later, his Chevy pickup was gone.
"This is a scam what they're doing, to go and charge me $400 because I shop at this store. I don't have no receipts to prove it but I shop here when I'm in this area because it's cheaper," the man says.
There are signs all over warning that parking is for customers only and that unauthorized parkers will be towed. Many of the people getting towed are patients or employees at the DMC, where patient parking costs $2.50.
Some of the people who have been towed clearly were parked where they should not be. Taylor says she simply didn't see the signs.
"I was in a rush. I really didn't. I was just focusing on one thing—just get to the doctor's appointment," Taylor says.
An attorney for the Warren Plaza says there were so many freeloaders in the mall lot at one point, that paying customers, many of them elderly, had nowhere to park.
But the 7 Action News Investigators watched the lot for weeks and never saw it more than 40 percent full.
And people who have been towed say that Larson's $400 dollar towing fee is outrageous.
The BBB says the industry average in Detroit is $135 to $175. The BBB also says that Larson's "…has a pattern of towing vehicles prematurely, aggressively, and charging above average fees...towing incorrectly while consumers are shopping at businesses, or en route to businesses in shopping areas."
Larson's is not a member of the BBB.
Some of the people who have been towed admitted that they left the parking lot, but say they had planned to go grocery shopping or eat at one of the mall's restaurant afterwards.
MaryAnn Sparkman, an employee at the DMC, says she ran next door to get a new employee I.D. She says she was only gone for about 15 minutes and left her car in the Warren Plaza lot.
"I came out, it was gone," Sparkman says.
Sparkman says she had planned to pick up some groceries for her elderly mother after making a quick stop at the DMC, then picking up her mom for a doctor's appointment. Sparkman says the towing company is acting as judge and jury.
"Because somebody saw me walk from my car, and you're just going to come and take it. Like I said, to me, that's stealing," says Sparkman.
Grave Reaves tells 7 Action News that she was towed while she was grocery shopping
and that she never even left the shopping center property.
"I went into Food Pride, went shopping and I spent like a hundred dollars worth of food, came back, my car was gone," Reaves says.
Reaves says she returned the food and got a receipt. Later she took the Food Pride Market to court and won a judgment for $509.50.
Folks also complain that when they retrieve their cars, towing company operators are rude.
"The owner, he was Satan. That's the way he sounded he growled at me; ‘If you want your car you'll bring me $400,'" Sparkman says.
Reaves recorded the towing company owner Tom Larson on her cell phone as she was questioning who gave him authorization to tow her car.
"You said in order for ya'll to be called it had to have been the store that called ya'll?" Reaves is heard asking on the audio tape.
"Ma'am, we haven't told you nothing. So don't try and put words in our mouth, okay? If you want to get your car, feel free to pay your bill," Larson snapped back.
And what about those spotters Larson's has in the mall parking lot? People who were towed say they think that they are being overly aggressive. Several other towing company owners told 7 Action News that they only tow on private property and only when the owner calls and requests it.
"They call me. I don't drive by there and see a car and take it. I mean how could I do that?" says Benny McGuire, the owner of Lands Towing in Detroit. McGuire says that he charges $165 for a private tow and $10 a day for storage.
So why would Larson's towing and the Warren Plaza be so aggressive?
"They must be taking a cut out of this bulls—t," speculates the man whose Chevy pickup was towed while he was getting x-rays.
7 Action news reached the owner of Larson's by phone. Tom Larson admitted that he is paying $4,000 per month to someone at the shopping center, but he wouldn't say who.
The shopping center and the grocery store are owned by members of the same family, whose last name is Pattah.
The mall's attorney told 7 Action News in an email, "My client does not receive a kickback from the tow fees."
The attorney also states that the owners hired a management company and, "I believe the manager hired the towing company".
Our undercover camera caught something else troubling about Larson's Towing. When they hook a car from the rear, they pull it around the corner and use a tool called a "big easy" to break in so they can strap the steering wheel to make the car track straight behind the tow truck.
The question is: What gives them the right to break into people's cars?
Reaves, who beat Larson's in court, says it is time to tighten the state law regulating private tows.
"There are some good tow people out there but for the bad ones like this, the laws need to change. I'm going to see if I can do that too," she says.
State law on private towing says nothing about how much towing companies can charge, whether the property owner has to request a tow, or about the use of spotters to catch violators. It only regulates signage which the mall and the towing company fully comply with.
When 7 Action News first talked with the shopping center's attorney and told him what was going on,he said it was not right and needed to be repaired. After talking to his clients he did an about face, saying the mall is such a magnet for parking violators they have no choice but to keep the status quo.
Just hours after this story went to air, a magistrate overturned that $509 judgment that Grace Reaves won saying she sued the food store when she should have sued the owners of the mall. Reaves says she is not giving up, she plans to track down the mall owners and serve them with a new small claims suit. Reaves says $509 might not be much money for some people, but it is a lot of money to her.
The bottom line for you; be careful where you park because it could turn into a very expensive mistake.