Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Guest Post: World's Worst Monopoly

It's not Microsoft in the 90s, Standard Oil in the 1890s, or the Dark Greens by Boardwalk and Park Place. It's Crown Street Towing. Sure it "competes" with several towing companies in the greater New Haven area, and with thousands across the country. Yet Crown St. has all of the worst elements of a true monopoly: a protected revenue model that's completely insulated from customer choice or recourse.

My story begins last Friday when my car was towed from outside my house. My crime: I owed excise taxes. Oops. To retrieve my car, I was told that I needed to pay my taxes in cash, plus the tow fee, and they'd release the car. Quick trip to the ATM and back, I'm told that I also owe some unpaid parking tickets which also (surprise!) need to be paid in cash.

"Anything else I need to know?"

"Nope, that's it"

So back to the ATM. I'm greeted, on my return, with the news that my registration had expired. I would need to renew that before paying off my taxes and tickets, and the DMV would only be open from from 8:00 - noon the next morning.

So I confirm: "I renew my registration, then I can come back and pay my taxes, my tickets, my towing fee, and I can drive off?"

"That's it."

I wake up Saturday morning, bike to the DMV, where I discover that I can't re-register my car until I've paid my taxes. Surprise! Back to the tow yard, where they say: "Oops, forgot about that, sorry!" At this point it's 11:30, the DMV's doors are closed, and it doesn't open again until Tuesday.

Which brings me to today. I went to town hall, paid my taxes, tickets, and late fees, went to the DMV, re-registered my car, and finally returned to the tow lot. At the tow lot, I get my best surprise yet: they're charging me $20 per day of storage after the first day, an extra $80 fee resulting from their misinformation.

I had a delightful conversation with the manager, that went about as follows:

Me: description of what happened

Manager, to employee: "Did you tell him that he needed to re-register before paying taxes?"

Employee: "Yes"

Manager, to me: "Well, why did you listen to her? If you don't know the rules, why should she?"

Me: "I figured she would know, since you guys deal with exactly this issue every day."

Manager: "We're a tow lot, not the DMV, so that was stupid."

Me: "Small business to small business owner, if one of my employees makes a mistake, I take responsibility."

Manager, with a smirk: "You'd offer a refund, right?"

Me: "Yes."

Manager: "Well, who messed up here? You. Wasn't us. Your car, your responsibility to know the rules." to employee: "Charge him for everything."

She then walked away, muttered, and I quote: "funniest thing I've heard all week." To add salt in the wound, they claimed their credit card machine was down and I'd have to pay the entirety in cash. Which I did.

Total damage:
* $524
* 2 bike trips to the DMV
* 1 hour of dealing with the most unpleasant, conceited people

Amount I deserved for being an idiot and failing to keep up to date on my car:
* $444
* 1 bike trip to the DMV
* 15 minutes of dealing with the most unpleasant, conceited people


Fundamentally, tow lots are completely unaccountable. I can't control where my car is towed, I can't encourage other people to have their cars towed to an alternative lot, and once it's in the a tow lot, I'm completely at the mercy of the tow yard. They have no reason to be pleasant or even honest. In this case, their dishonesty netted them an extra $80 in cash. What other business works like that? Towing is a twisted, monopolistic industry that mints money for its owners and, as far as I can tell, there's nothing to be done about it.

Much as I'm incredibly frustrated, I'm also lucky that I can absorb an extra $80, that I have enough cash in my account to pay these fees in cash, that I'm self-employed so can take off a weekday, and that I can live without my car for an extra 4 days. What about a person who can't be as flexible? What about a father or mother who works two jobs, relies on his/her car and lives paycheck-to-paycheck?

Lawyers, scholars, Sam, I need your advice. Have you gone through anything similar? What should I do in this particular situation, and what should be done about the towing industry in general to give the "consumer" back a touch of control?

(1) Small claims court. Do I have a case? Is it worth the pain in the ass? Will one minor inconvenience have any effect on their practices?

(2) Systemic changes. I was brainstorming ways to introduce accountability, and thought of one easy-to-implement solution. For any city with more than one convenient tow lot, drivers should be able to put a sticker on their car indicating the preferred tow lot. When police call in a car for towing, they'd need to call that lot first. A particularly bad experience would encourage a consumer, and their friends, to change their preferred lot. Tow companies would have some inducement to be civil, helpful, and fair. Could it work? How to proceed?

Thoughts? Gentle words? It's been a rough few days.



  1. Well, I am definitely not qualified to offer legal advice (or revenge advice), but that does sound infuriating and terrible! It does seem a little disturbing that the organizations that enforce laws are under way less public accountability than, you know, actual law enforcement places.

  2. True! Why isn't towing handled by a government agency, like the tax collectors and police departments tow companies serve? Wouldn't help with efficiency or the mood of employees, perhaps, but at least you'd know who to complain to. And you wouldn't have the extra sting of knowing your bullshit fees are enriching some corrupt pseudo-businessperson.

  3. Well, my official legal advice, which I'm pretty sure davidp, an actual lawyer, would agree with (as the following tale will reveal) is what I told you a few days ago: you should have tried harder to leace the tow lot with car, paying them whatever you actually thought you owed them, and made THEM take you to court for the extra 80 or whatever.

    The tale: One time my dad and I went to the airport to fly to Boston. We parked really far from the airport. The bus took a really long time to swing by our lot, and we missed our flight. After returning from Boston, davidp tried his darndest to get out of the parking lot without paying the parking fee, his argument being that the parking lot people didn't provide the service that they were contractually obligated to provide, aka having buses come in a reasonable amount of time to take you to the airport. This was purely a matter of principle, given that the parking fee was, if I recall correctly, in the vicinity of 20 dollars for our 3-day trip. And I'm pretty sure the opportunity cost of an hour-and-a-half of his time (not to mention mine, even at the age of 10), which is how long he argued with the attendant/police, was higher than 20 dollars.

    Anyhoo, he claimed that he had every right to drive off without paying, which he attempted to do, but couldn't quite get past the gate-drop-down-thingy. So he ended up paying. But he also claimed that the police who were holding us there pending payment were actually doing some illegal, for which he planned to sue them in small claims court. Officer Carr, I'll never forget your name.

    Point being: you could have at least threatened the same thing: let me have my car and I'm getting outta here, and you can't stop me. If they tried to stop you, then I think you'd have a better case in court.

    As it is, Dad never sued Officer Carr (as far as I know), probably because he had better things to do than get back that twenty dollars. And you probably have better things to do than get back 80. But wouldn't it be sweet if you did?

  4. Just to clarify the legal reasoning, what my dad argued (I think) what that they couldn't compel us to pay up, or keep us from leaving without paying. In your case it's slightly different, because they weren't trying to keep you from leaving, they were just holding your car. I'm not sure how that affects the situation legally. But my gut says you should've been able to leave with the car, and have them try to collect their debt, rather than hold the car ransom.

  5. Full disclosure: they boxed my car in with 3 other cars, and it took a couple tow trucks to clear a path between me and the exit. So even if I wanted to pursue the anarchist route, it would have proven pretty difficult.