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On The Hook 

Towing companies tend to get a bad rap; is their spotty reputation deserved?

Late on a stormy night in March, Amber Annis' Chevy Blazer was stolen by a knife-wielding carjacker who then crashed the vehicle. But Annis believes she was the victim of another crime that evening--a theft committed by the company which towed her SUV.

Christopher Strawn needed to get his inoperative pickup truck to a mechanic, so he randomly selected a towing company out of the phone book. He thinks that decision cost him dearly, based on what the company charged him.

In a hurry to get groceries into her sister's apartment, Cynthia Ortega illegally parked and got towed as a result. But she alleges the company that impounded her car ripped her off when she went to pick it up.

These are just three of the numerous complaints that the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona has received about 13 towing companies during the last three years. In the companies' defense, the management of one tower expresses an opinion probably shared by most of the dozens of other towing firms in town.

"We do what we do," reads a statement from B&C Towing about its impound business, "and are not looked highly upon, because nobody likes to admit when they've done something wrong and have to suffer consequences for their actions."

For her part, Annis did nothing wrong. Her 1991 Blazer was stolen and then totaled in a rollover accident. The vehicle was hauled by Gary's Towing to its storage yard on East Drexel Road, and the next morning, Annis went to retrieve the wrecked remains. She had to pay to do so.

"When I got back home," Annis recalls, "I saw the alternator was missing. Gary's Towing said it fell out during the rollover, but the car only flipped once, and the alternator is bolted in."

According to a report filed on the vehicle's theft and recovery, an officer of the Tucson Police Department wrote that the vehicle struck a retaining wall, which caused it to flip over.

After the accident, this same TPD officer found a number of items both inside and "directly outside of the vehicle." These included a folding knife, two keys and a screwdriver. No mention is made of an alternator.

"I'd like to get the alternator back," Annis continues. "It was my part."

An Internet check for alternators confirms this wasn't an insignificant loss. Remanufactured alternators for Chevy Blazers can run as high as $120.

Frustrated at the lack of assistance from Gary's Towing, Annis turned to the Better Business Bureau. She filled out a complaint form, and she compliments the BBB on keeping her informed throughout the ensuing process.

While the towing company didn't respond to requests by the Weekly to comment on her allegations, Annis remembers they told her: "Gary's said they couldn't do anything."

This is one of 10 complaints lodged with the BBB against Gary's during the last three years, the highest number the bureau has received against any Tucson towing company as of this story's deadline. Despite that, the firm is in satisfactory standing with the agency, because it responds in some fashion to the BBB complaints filed against it.

On the other hand, Barnett's Towing has an unsatisfactory rating. That is because of the four complaints submitted against it since the summer of 2004, two have gone unanswered.

One of those complaints which didn't receive a response was filed by Strawn. He lives on the northwest side, and because of engine problems, he needed to get his pickup towed to a mechanic about 15 miles away.

Strawn remembers that when he contacted Barnett's, an employee told him they were located only a few miles from his home. That apparently wasn't the case. "They sent a guy from the eastside in rush-hour traffic and charged me for the time. I assumed I would pay per mile, not by the hour."

That was a reasonable assumption, since the standard charge in the towing industry is by the mile. As an example, Gary's Towing has a contract with the city of Tucson that allows them to bill a standard fee of $28.50, plus $2 per loaded mile for the tow, for light-duty jobs.

When Barnett's presented Strawn with a towing bill of approximately $130--an amount about double what some other companies would charge--he was naturally upset.

"I contacted Barnett's to complain," he says, "but they never got back to me. Then I turned to the Better Business Bureau."

While Strawn recalls that someone from the towing company eventually called to ask about the complaint, he says they never contacted him again after that. Based on his experience with the company, he says: "They're more interested in taking care of themselves than in the customer."

When telephoned about this article, a spokesman for the towing company declined to respond to Strawn's statements. Instead, his reply was: "We've answered everything from the Better Business Bureau, and I have no further comments."

That seems to be a common refrain from some towing companies about complaints. They pull their tow trucks into a circle of silence and try to head off an attack on their business by saying nothing.

Keeping quiet was certainly the approach used by the other two towing companies in town which have unsatisfactory ratings from the Better Business Bureau. Just like Barnett's, employees of these firms didn't want to talk about the issue, either.

Snow's Towing has the unsatisfactory classification, even though during the last three years, only one complaint has been filed against it. This complaint concerned items being stolen from the vehicle and gasoline siphoned from its tank. But since Snow's didn't respond to the BBB, it received the unsatisfactory grade.

"It was a ridiculous complaint," a woman at the company says, "but I'd rather not bother about answering questions."

The final company with the unsatisfactory rating, Arizona Auto Wrecking, also only had one complaint against it. But, like Snow's, they failed to reply to the BBB.

"We basically only do towing on our own vehicles, not public towing," a representative of the firm says when contacted.

While many towing companies don't want to discuss the complaints filed against them, B&C Towing has no reluctance.

"We have nothing to hide," says Melissa Ramirez, manager of the company. "We're not ripping people off."

Established almost 20 years ago, B&C now has six tow trucks. Most of the company's business comes from impounding thousands of illegally parked vehicles each year from private lots where it has contracts with the owner to enforce regulations.

To retrieve these vehicles, B&C Towing charges $200 plus a $20-a-day storage fee. Ramirez describes the $200 amount as "about the going rate in town."

Those retrieval and storage charges for cars impounded on private property are small amounts compared to what people pay whose vehicles have been towed because of some police actions. Arizona law requires motorists guilty of one of seven different violations--including those driving with a revoked license or those arrested for extreme DUI--to have their vehicles impounded for 30 days.

If the car is impounded within the Tucson city limits, it will cost $435 to retrieve the vehicle from Gary's Towing after one month, plus towing charges. For the 12 months ending June 30, the Tucson Police Department had ordered more than 6,900 vehicles impounded.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department had 4,043 vehicles impounded during the same period. It was recently announced that the county would award a new multipart contract to tow vehicles, with Gary's getting the bulk of the business.

"We're in a business nobody is very appreciative of," Ramirez of B&C Towing says about impounding vehicles. "When they get caught, (vehicle owners) think, 'Who can I blame it on?'

"The price is used as a deterrent," Ramirez says. "If someone parks illegally, that's a lot of money to pay. It's almost an incentive, because if people do what they're supposed to do, we'd be out of business."

Cynthia Ortega freely admits she parked illegally when she went to her sister's westside apartment to drop off groceries earlier this year. She remembers she left her car in a loading zone in front of Building 13 at the complex--an unlucky number for her, because the car was quickly towed.

Ortega says she parked near a trash bin, which had a red-painted curb near it and a handicapped parking space nearby on the other side.

About 100 feet away from this area are small notices from B&C Towing, attached to some of the posts holding up the complex's covered parking spaces. These 3-by-6 inch signs state: "Assigned Parking--All others will be towed w/o notice."

The language on these notices appears to comply with Arizona state law. The same statute also requires: "The owner or agent of the owner of the private property (where the notice is posted) shall be deemed to have given consent to unrestricted parking by the general public in any parking area of the private property unless such parking area is posted with signs as prescribed by this subsection which are clearly visible and readable from any point within the parking area ... ."

Ortega didn't complain about the signage, nor did she object to the $200 impound fee B&C Towing charged. She complained to the Better Business Bureau because she believes she paid $50 too much to get her car back.

Ortega insists a friend loaned her $250 the afternoon after her car was towed, and that is what she gave an employee of B&C. But she didn't notice it when he wrote a receipt for $200--another mistake she acknowledges.

Immediately after leaving the lot, Ortega recalls, she discovered the discrepancy and returned, insisting she had paid $50 too much. She says the employee she dealt with speculated that the wind must have blown the $50 bill out of her hand.

Ramirez and the owner of B&C Towing, which is a member of the Better Business Bureau, wrote a three-page letter in response to Ortega's allegations. Standing behind their employee, these managers commented: "First off, (the employee) collected not a dollar more than $200 that day; there was never an additional $50 exchanged during the transaction."

The letter also says: "If (Ortega) believed so strongly that she was overcharged, then she should have questioned it before she signed anything stating the amount of the cash that took place in this transaction."

Continuing, the letter states: "There is no way of proving that she (Ortega) did in fact even have the additional $50 on her once she was on our property."

Based on all of this, the letter concludes: "None of this inconvenience would have happened had she (Ortega) parked appropriately."

Ramirez of B&C Towing says: "We've never had a problem with that employee, and we hold him in high regard." Additionally, she says: "We asked (Ortega) for a statement from a bank showing she took $250 out, and she couldn't provide it."

Dissatisfied with the towing company's response, Ortega told the BBB she wanted the $50 back. But after reviewing the case, the bureau determined the complaint was administratively resolved.

" We act as a neutral third party," says Kim States, public affairs manager of the local Better Business Bureau. "We don't make judgments on the validity of the complaints."

"If the company is making a good-faith effort (to resolve the case)," States says, "we'll close it if the consumer is being unreasonable. Or if we see the company doesn't want to address the core issue, it will be classified as unresolved or unanswered if the company chose to ignore the complaint."

The bureau is made up of dues-paying business members who agree to abide by a 14-point list of standards. One of those mandates members to "promptly respond to any and all complaints forwarded by the bureau and make good faith efforts to resolve (them)."

States points out that people can compliment as well as criticize businesses. Members of the public can also find out quite a bit of information about a company before doing business with it.

The BBB strongly recommends consumers check a company's "Reliability Report" on its Web site before dealing with the firm. With a company's telephone number, people can get the same information by calling the bureau: (520) 888-5353 or (800) 696-2827.

Using these two methods provides somewhat different results. While the online response gives a detailed analysis of the firm's record with the BBB, a phone call provides only a general review of the company.

Of the thousands of inquiries the Better Business Bureau receives annually, States says: "Ninety-eight percent of our calls concern a pre-purchase inquiry, and only 2 percent are complaints." As an example of a pre-purchase question, she says anyone wanting their roof repaired can contact the bureau to check on a specific roofing company.

"Before you shop," a Better Business Bureau flier declares of these pre-purchase questions, "check the company's BBB Reliability Report."

But if someone wants to complain about a firm, the BBB urges the consumer to first try to work out the issue directly with the company. If that doesn't succeed, they can use a form available online or obtain one through the mail by calling the bureau.

During the first seven months of this year, the BBB received just more than 3,000 complaints, three-fourths of which were submitted online. The major generators of these complaints were new-car dealers and retail furniture stores, followed by used-car dealers, auto-repair shops and travel-agent telephone mills.

The nine complaints filed against towing companies from January through July of this year didn't place towing companies among the BBB's Top 25 list of businesses types. Of those complaints, four of them involved Gary's Towing, also a member of the bureau.

Gonzo Towing, on the other hand, has had no complaints filed against it over the past three years. With a fleet of six trucks, the company has been in business since 1999.

"We try to run a clean ship," says Frank Gonzalez of Gonzo's. "Business is bad enough without making it bad for the customers."

Once the Better Business Bureau is contacted with a complaint about a firm, it forwards the concern to the business, which then has 15 days to respond. If they don't, a second notice is sent to the company with 10 days to answer.

"Our members agree to respond to consumer complaints presented by the BBB," a bureau brochure declares, "and lose their membership if they do not."

To avoid this complaint procedure, which he followed without satisfaction, Christopher Strawn wishes he had checked on Barnett's Towing before calling them to haul his vehicle. Instead, he used an "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" method of selecting the firm from a telephone book.

Based on his experience, Strawn observes: "Don't wait until (you) need one to try to find one. Instead, they should talk to people, like a mechanic or the Arizona Automobile Association, to get information before they need one."


TOWING COMPANY COMPLAINTS TO THE BBB OVER LAST THREE YEARS

Gary's Towing 10
B&C Towing 9
Frontier Towing 5
Barnett's Towing* 4
SDL Towing 3
Arizona Auto Wrecking* 1
Arizona's Best Towing 1
B&B Towing 1
Champion Auto Recovery 1
R&J Towing 1
Snow's Towing* 1
Tucson Certified Towing 1
Valenzuela's Towing 1
*Unsatisfactory Rating
by Better Business Bureau

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