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Aldermen endorse effort to corral ‘Wild West’ of rogue tow truck drivers

A City Council committee OK’d a revised ordinance that calls for the city to create a first-ever license for tow truck operators, require a $250 license for every truck they use and license the locations where towed vehicles are stored.

A tow truck operator attaches chains to a Black Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross found in the 9200 block of South Williams Ave. Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
A tow truck operator prepares to take away a Mitsubishi SUV in the 9200 block of South Williams Avenue in March. The Chicago City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection on Wednesday approved a revised ordinance that calls for the city to establish a first-ever license for tow truck operators, require a $250 license for every truck they use and license the locations where vehicles they tow are stored.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen moved Wednesday to corral the “Wild West” of rogue tow truck drivers who rush to accident scenes, snare damaged vehicles and hold them hostage until rattled motorists pay exorbitant fees.

One month after putting on the brakes, the City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection approved a revised ordinance that calls for the city to establish a first-ever license for tow truck operators, require a $250 license for every truck they use and license the locations where vehicles they tow are stored.

Last month, License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) demanded more time to consider AAA’s request for a waiver that could excuse the motor club from record-keeping requirements that would slow down AAA towing operations.

Ald. David Moore (17th) raised concerns about the impact on city contractors.

That prompted Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) to amend the ordinance he championed to satisfy their concerns.

“AAA didn’t want to be responsible for individual towing contractors. So, [I] struck that. If you’re a city vendor, you won’t have to pay the license. However, if you have other vehicles that are not working on the city contract, those vehicles would have to pay the license,” Villegas said.

“We had language regarding what would be prohibited for someone getting a license. We struck misdemeanor and just kept it at felony to keep it consistent with how [Business Affairs and Consumer Protection] licenses people in the booting industry.”

With those changes, the License Committee approved the ordinance tailor-made to prevent “rampant” abuses by “rogue” towing companies that “take advantage of rattled vehicle owners” by appearing unsolicited at accident scenes.

“In June of 2021, six people were injured in a bus crash in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood caused by a tow truck driver racing to an accident scene. CPD has reported instances of gunfire between rival towing companies and incidents of arson at towing storage facilities with clear elements of organized crime,” Villegas said.

“Bogus paperwork at accident scenes. Towers claiming they were ‘sent by your insurance company’ and towers monitoring police radios to beat law enforcement to the accident scene. Towing bills for simple accidents ranging from the $3,000 to $5,000. ... Whatever is currently in place is not working.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said he couldn’t agree more after a harrowing experience with a “rogue tower going the wrong-direction on a one-way street in a residential neighborhood” in his ward earlier this week.

“When I approached him to try and get him to stop going the wrong direction out of fear that he’d run over one of my community’s children, he took it upon himself to park and approach me, my ward super and a district sanitation supervisor intimating that he was ready to shoot us for interrupting him. Reaching into his waistband,” he said.

“We had that gentleman arrested. But as I reached out to the departments yesterday and today to find out what recourse we had, who licensed, how do we hold them accountable, there was none on the city side. That is something that, I hope, this legislation is the first step in changing.”

Last month, Sgt. Keith Blair of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Auto Theft Unit called towing abuses a “very serious problem” that has “overloaded” CPD and hampered its ability to investigate the number of vehicles towed illegally from crash scenes.

“They’re using any method necessary to try and obtain control of an unsuspecting victim’s vehicle. Promising them free rental and [making] other promises that they never fulfill. And they end up holding these cars hostage,” Blair said that day.

“They’re closely aligned in some areas with gangs. ... Much like we see gang conflicts, we see gang conflicts among tow drivers as well.”

The ordinance also would prohibit certain acts, such as:

• Stopping “at or near” an accident scene or near a damaged or disabled vehicle to solicit the vehicle owner unless summoned to the scene by law enforcement, other city or state agencies or the vehicle owner or his or her representative.

• Making any false, misleading or threatening statements to the vehicle owner for the purpose of coercing the owner to engage the operator’s towing services, such as claiming to be affiliated with a government agency or insurance company that would cover the towing cost.

• Holding a towed vehicle against the owner’s will until the motorist agrees to pay a “ransom” fee amounting to thousands of dollars.

“Even if you wanted to pay to get your vehicle released, you can’t even pay with a credit card. You have to pay with cash,” Villegas said.