how to avoid a towing scam

After a car accident or breakdown, a tow truck on the horizon typically means help has arrived. But in rare cases, it can mean trouble in the form of high towing fees or fraud. We'll explain how to spot a tow truck scam in the making.

recognizing a tow truck scam

Your car breaks down on a lonely stretch of road. As you're fussing with the engine, trying to figure out what went wrong, a tow truck pulls in beside you and offers to help. You breathe a sigh of relief, hand over your keys, sign the paperwork, and thank your lucky stars for this stroke of good luck. But this favorable turn of events could end up costing you a small fortune. Why?

Dishonest towing operators (also known as bandit tow trucks) that materialize "just when you need them" prey on unsuspecting drivers in need. They offer to help — and then charge exorbitant fees for their services. In fact, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, reported cases of inflated towing or storage bills increased by 92 percent during the first half of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009.

The moral: be leery of unsolicited help.

7 things to know before you tow

To protect yourself from inflated towing fees and fraud, make sure you know exactly what you're paying for, who you're working with, and what your insurance company will cover. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Know what your insurance policy covers. See if you have roadside assistance coverage and what the limits are. If you've been in an accident, find out how your car insurance company handles towing and how much your insurer will cover.
  2. If you do need a towing service, don't deal with a towing operator who arrives on the scene unsolicited. Though honest, hardworking towing companies can miraculously appear when you need them most, it's wise to err on the side of caution.
  3. Don't let a towing operator take your vehicle until:
    1. You receive a printed price or invoice. The price should list towing fees, daily storage fees (if any), and all other miscellaneous charges.
    2. You know where your car is being towed to.
  4. Make sure the company name on the truck matches the documentation.
  5. Don't give out any personal information.
  6. Be wary of giving out too much insurance information. Some bandit tow operators use this information for additional scams, like calling the victim and pretending to be their insurer.
  7. If you suspect fraud or if the tow truck driver refuses to leave, call the police.

your rights as a consumer

If you think you've been victimized by a towing scam, you have a few options. If you have a complaint against a towing company — say for charging overinflated fees — you could file a claim with the Better Business Bureau and the fraud department (if available) in your state. Additionally, your own insurance company may be able to help.

You may be able to contest charges if the tow company misrepresented their services, claimed to be affiliated with your insurer or law enforcement, or committed other flagrant acts of deception or fraud.

If you'd like to contest any exorbitant charges, you can do so in a civil or small-claims court. But if you've given your signed permission allowing the tow truck to take your car, you may be held liable even if you later find the charges excessive or unfair.

how emergency roadside service can help

Emergency roadside service (ERS), aside from providing 24/7 support for lockouts, tire changes, battery services, and gas, oil, and water delivery, can also help you avoid towing fraud. With ERS coverage, called towing and labor in some states, you call a trusted toll-free number, and we'll dispatch a reliable and reputable towing company to aid you. No worries. No hassles. No chance of fraud.

If you would like to add ERS to your policy, call 1-800-ESURANCE (1-800-378-7262), where we're available to help at these times.

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