Getting ripped off by a towing service, $43 at a time...

It is no secret that BD has zero sympathy for anyone who has the unmitigated chutzpah to park their car in a privately owned parking lot and walk off to patronize another business, without any regard for the business owning the parking lot. If you don't have the sense to read the signs, you deserve what you get, and what you will pay when you pick up your car at the towing lot.

Many of these idiots believe it's their god-given right to park anywhere they want, justifying their logic by saying, The business is on Lower Greenville, it is what it is.

These are the same people who think our residential streets belong to them, even if they live in Plano or McKinney. Welcome to the wonderful world of Resident Parking Only, guys.

Towing happens dozens of times every weekend on Lower Greenville: Bar patrons are desperate to find a free parking space  - god forbid they should pay $10 to park on a secure lot - so they park on the Taco Cabana, Blockbuster, Dodie's or CVS parking lot. They wander away, not realizing that someone is watching them leave. Five minutes later their car is gone - probably to South Dallas, to a place you don't want to visit in the daytime, let alone at 4am.

Since December 2006, more than 54,000 vehicles were towed involuntarily (also called a non-consent tow) by dozens of private towing services from private property for illegal parking, parking after hours, repo's, and similar issues. This figure does not include tows for accidents, repairs or illegal parking on City streets.

Non-Consent towing charges are set by the City's Transportation Department ($95 for the tow) and the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation ($20 for the storage fee, $20 for the impoundment fee), or about $135 if you get your car back within a day.

Unless your car was towed by Lone Star Auto Services. When you paid your bill to get your car back, they tacked on a governmental entity fee of $43.65 or more on top of the approved charges. The receipt does not tell you which governmental entity is getting this money, and if you ask, they won't tell you.

Funny thing about this fee: It's illegal and it's going into Lone Star's corporate pocket.

Even funnier: The City of Dallas' Transportation Regulation department has cited Lone Star at least a dozen times in the last eight months for collecting this illegal fee. But Lone Star keeps collecting the money, ripping off people who are in no position to argue about it because the citations have not yet been heard in Municipal Court.


Don't let your sons grow up to be tow truck drivers

While most towing services have their shady side (eg the number of criminal assaults you need on your record in order to qualify as a driver), there are some things they just cannot do. For example, AJ's Towing was featured on News8 and the DMN this past Friday night for towing without any state licenses and storing several stolen cars on their property.

But Lone Star pushes the envelope when it comes to illegal actions. Lone Star's business manager, David Schweng, who was also their Lower Greenville spotter last St. Patrick's Day, contacted BD about six weeks ago (in his role as vice-president of the BelmontNA), saying he and his company president wanted to discuss over lunch how they could tow cars blocking residential driveways in the neighborhood from public streets. When BD countered they could only do this using a helicopter in order to avoid driving on city streets, he insisted they had a way to interpret the City's towing code in such a way that would allow them to do this. They wanted BD to pass the word to BelmontNA members, whom they hoped would call them for towing services.

BD contacted the City's Transportation Department and confirmed there was no way this could be legal. This is when BD starting asking Lone Star's staff some hard questions - which they refused to answer.

Repeated faxes to Lone Star's office asking for comments for this article have been ignored.

Lone Star Auto Services is not a new name on this website. For nearly two years, they were responsible for towing illegally parked cars off the Blockbuster Lower Greenville lot, usually grabbing 10 -15 cars each weekend. That came to a grinding halt last month when BD proved Lone Star never had a legal contract.

The Blockbuster folks thought the property owner had made the deal, the property owner thought Whole Foods had made the deal, and the Whole Food folks thought Blockbuster made the deal. In fact, no one made a deal. Lone Star simply planted signs on the parking lot and went about their business.

BD contacted Lone Star's manager for Lower Greenville - Scott Mosser - and asked for a copy of the contract. They replied it was none of his business.

BD filed a complaint with the City's Transportation Department, who can - and did - demand a copy of the
contract since they use the City's right of way (streets) to move cars.

This did not go over well with Lone Star, so they tried to bully a Blockbuster manager into signing a contract at the same time the property owner's agent was sending them a letter to get off the property. They were evicted about three weeks ago and a new towing service will be on duty by next weekend (with a properly executed contract in hand).


They charged me how much???

After BD posted his story about Lone Star's Blockbuster issues, he started getting calls from former Lone Star customers, asking him questions about their unusual towing charges.

In every single instance, the complaint was the same - What's with this governmental entity fee, and what government is getting it??

This is a partial scan of an invoice provided to us by a very pissed customer. This and another invoice are posted as PDF files at this link.

BD contacted the City's Transportation Department and confirmed two things -

There is no such thing as a governmental entity fee allowed for any non-consent tow in Dallas

The City has cited Lone Star for this illegal fee no less than 12 times since October 2007.

They were issued as at-large tickets, delivered by mail to Lone Star's office. BD is not completely fluent in the process' details, but apparently when someone complains about the fee on their receipt, a ticket is issued upon verification of the illegal charges.

This means only 12 people figured out something was not kosher about the fees and went to the effort of finding who to call.

A copy of one ticket is shown below.... you can see all 12 citations by clicking this link.

To date, Lone Star and the City have not duked it out in Municipal Court (the tickets are handled the same way as parking or speeding tickets), which is not unusual.

But if Lone Star loses at least two of the cases, the City can - and will - revoke Lone Star's towing permit for operating on Dallas streets.

Maybe.

That may not be enough to stop them. Back in June 2006 (link), AJ's Towing was towing for months without a permit, and the City could not stop them.

The penalty for any towing company operating without a business license may sound like a slap on the wrist to many—a $500 fine.

On an average night, a tow truck driver can make that much money for his company in an hour with two or three tows.

Dallas authorities said while they would like to start an investigation against AJ's Towing immediately, they can't.

"We need people that they tow to contact us so we can issue an outside complaint and take it to Municipal Court," said Gary Titlow, the city's manager of transportation regulation.

The city must get two convictions against the company within a year before it can begin to shut A.J.'s down.

But then there's another problem.

While the towing company's business license expired in June and they continue to haul off cars, the city still can't shut them down.

Fast forward to 2008, and AJ's is still in business.

Given the City's record for not being able win cases against AJ's Towing or phony Lower Greenville restaurants operating as bars, we have zero confidence in their ability to stop Lone Star from pocketing this money for years to come.


Is this fee legal??

That depends on who you talk to, and what time you talk to them.

The attorney for Lone Star Auto Service told News8 the fee is legal because the state agency which regulates towing services -Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR)- says they can do it.

According to the report (link), James Mosser, the attorney for Lone Star Auto Services, apparently believes his client is not required to follow Dallas City Code...

These citations were not lawfully issued. The City of Dallas has no right to regulate these tow companies and their storage facilities.

The TDLR says, No, that's not quite true. Lone Star can charge a reasonable fee above and beyond the allowed fees provided the fee is included on a required annual rate sheet showing the charges they intend to collect for the following year.

The State says Lone Star Auto did not include the fees on its filing last year, and therefore is not allowed to collect them.

The City of Dallas says, No, they cannot charge anything above what the City Code or TDLR says are the basic charges (towing and impoundment).

In the end, Lone Star Auto is not saying what they do with the money, and has no proof that they ever filed the rate sheet with the TDLR last year.

According to Susan Stanford, public information officer for the TDLR...

The governmental entity fee falls under the Vehicle Storage Facility Administrative Rules.

Vehicle Storage Facility Administrative Rule 85.722 states:

(f) Governmental or law enforcement fees. A VSF operator may collect from a vehicle owner any fee that must be paid to a law enforcement agency, the agency's authorized agent, or a governmental entity.

If a governmental entity charges a vehicle storage facility a fee the facility can pass that fee on to the owner of the vehicle.

This is an on-going investigation that our enforcement division is working on.

Question - Since the City of Dallas is not requiring this fee, then where is the money going?

Answer - In Lone Star's pockets.

This does not help you much when it's 4am and your car is sitting on the other side of the towing lot wall. You have no choice but to pay the fee and then file a complaint with the City and TDLR and hope you get your money back.


So how do I get my money back???

The short answer is, You probably can't.

You should file a complaint with the City's Transportation Department - contact Ruben Padilla at 214.670.3358. But have a copy of the original receipt, not a credit card statement. A few more citations added to the pile would make things really interesting.

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, which is responsible for towing service regulation, has only one complaint on file for this illegal charge. You can file a complaint online with them at this link; after you file the complaint, you will receive information on how to fax your receipts to them.

The long answer is, Can you say class action lawsuit???

Let's do the math. Since our receipts and tickets are for locations all over Dallas, assume Lone Star is tacking this fee to every towing invoice. That means they have collected nearly $38,000 in nearly 18 months.

Throw in some treble damages, punitive damages, vehicle damages and legal fees, and now you are talking about a half-million bucks in someone else's pockets.

If anyone wants BD's list of vehicles towed by Lone Star since December 2006, pop him an email and we will send you the database (with license plate information only). You can see a list of 362 vehicles towed from Blockbuster Lower Greenville at this page.

If you have documents about Lone Star, fax them to BD at 214-292-9761 (no cover page required) or email PDF files to news@barkingdogs.org.

Click here to see the WFAA News8 story

Click here to read the WFAA News8 story

By Avi S. Adelman under Public safety , Legal issues