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?"
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?"
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?"
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.
* 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:
* 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.