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Lawsuit targets predatory tow truck firms

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
SouthtownStar
by Phil Kadner

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez on Monday filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against four Chicago-area towing companies, two near Blue Island, for preying on accident victims by charging fees ranging from $1,995 to $6,500.

I first disclosed such scams in the SouthtownStar in 2007, resulting in passage of the Illinois Safety Towing law and a consumer fraud lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The companies named in Monday's lawsuit are Road America Automotive, 3055 W. 131st St., Blue Island; City Wide Auto, which operates out of an adjacent lot at 13156 Sheridan Ave., Blue Island; Pro Auto, 5729 S. Claremont Ave., Chicago; and Showtime Towing, whose address was unavailable. Road America and City Wide Auto have Blue Island mailing addresses but are in an unincorporated area.

Also named is Orland Park resident Tareq A. Al-Hindi, president of Road America, who's named as an agent of the other three companies.

Madigan's lawsuit in 2007 named Road America and Al-Hindi along with two other towing companies he allegedly operated (Premier Auto Collision and Target Towing & Recovery).

In June 2008, the attorney general's office entered into a consent agreement in which Al-Hindi agreed to operate all towing businesses under one registered corporate name, disclose and itemize prices, operate from one address and maintain proper licenses. He also agreed his drivers would not misrepresent themselves as agents of insurance companies or motor clubs.

An attorney general's spokesman said that in light of the state's attorney's lawsuit, Madigan is reviewing the settlement agreement to determine if Al-Hindi violated any of its conditions. However, many of the cases cited by the state's attorney seemed to have occurred before the settlement was signed.

In addition to the promises from Al-Hindi, the settlement included $8,320 in restitution for a number of consumers who were ripped off by Road America and the other companies.

In addition to Tareq Al-Hindi, Monday's lawsuit also names Salah Azzam Al-Hindi and Zyad Al-Hindi, both of Orland Park, and Adel Suhail, of Oak Forest.

As part of their regular business practices, the tow truck operators intercepted police radio bandwidths to learn about collisions, according to the state's attorney's lawsuit. It says they would chase these accidents and arrive at the scene on the heels of, "and sometimes before," police.

"This practice often creates confusion and the false impression to members of the public that the police had summoned the tow truck operators," the lawsuit states.

In cases where the driver of a wrecked vehicle was not the owner, tow truck operators would contact the owner at "all hours of the day or night to obtain authorization to removed the wrecked vehicle from public roadways," according to the lawsuit.

As part of the companies' regular business practices, the lawsuit states, the tow truck drivers are prohibited from disclosing to the vehicle owners the true charges for towing and other services. The truck drivers routinely would tell motorists that the tow would be "free" or "won't cost anything" and would explain that insurance would cover the entire cost, the lawsuit says.

It says that on occasions when consumers insisted on a quote from tow truck operators, they would be told $125 for the tow and $50 a day for storage. In reality, the operators set the following rates for towing-related services: $625 for the tow, $1,445 winching, $565 labor, $595 clean-up, $95 a day storage and $425 administration fee, according to Alvarez's lawsuit.

All of those charges would be included in the final bill, whether or not winching or clean-up was needed, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit contends that neither City Wide Auto or Pro Auto are licensed tow truck operators in Illinois.

Alvarez is asking consumers who have fallen victim to these companies or or any other towing scams to contact her consumer fraud hot line at (312) 603-8700.

As fate would have it, the owner of a body shop in Country Club Hills contacted me on Monday to complain about another tow truck operator, Chicago's New Accident Recovery. On Friday, it charged a customer $3,945 for a tow from an accident scene at 123rd and Halsted streets to its lot at 16340 Crawford Ave., Markham, the shop owner said.

"They charged $695 for the tow plus mileage to go just a few miles," he said. "And they tacked on $575 for winching, and when I got the car here I drove it in myself."

The shop owner said the towing charges were likely to cost as much or more than the actual repair job.

"We all pay higher insurance costs for this sort of thing," he said. "Someone needs to put an end to it."

I first mentioned the towing rip-off scams to Alvarez during her campaign last year for state's attorney.

Her lawsuit seeks $500,000 in civil penalties, which might actually be a deterrent if the court sides with her.

Phil Kadner can be reached at pkadner@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-6787.



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