HOUSTON—Moments after a car crash, you’re shaken, confused and just plain vulnerable -- especially vulnerable to tow truck drivers and storage yards looking to make a buck. But the I-Team discovered, even though the City of Houston and Harris County limits what tow trucks can charge you, consumers claim some local businesses have found a way around the law.
The result? A tow that is legally capped around $150 could end up costing you thousands of dollars.
Ryan Haley was shaken up during an accident last month.
“He rear-ended me and I did a 180 and hit a parked truck,” Haley said.
But the stress piled on after the accident scene was cleared.
“It’s just not right, you know, the unfairness, the injustice,” his mother Cindy Haley said.
So what is she talking about? The crash totaled their Toyota. But when police ordered it towed, she said the wrecker driver pushed hard to take it to Vickery Auto Storage, located off East Mount Houston Road near Highway 59.
It’s a place where Ryan Haley said the next day he got duped.
“It’s very deceiving,” he said. “In order to get into my car and get my belongings out I had to sign these papers, and I asked him what exactly was I signing."'
But he swears Vickery Auto Storage never told him the truth.
I-Team: “In reality, what were you signing?”
Ryan Haley: “Papers to get the car repaired.”
The vehicle would be repaired not just at any body shop, but City Wide Collision Center, owned by the same man who owns Vickery Auto Storage.
But why would the car need repairs? Again, it was a total loss, and when the Haley family’s insurance company came by to pick it up, the same owner charged $2,000 just to release the vehicle.
The fees included storage, labor, a “yard/gate” fee—and a whopping $370 tow charge.
’It’s just, it’s robbery, it’s just not right,” Cindy Haley said.
Joe Bastida said the same sleight-of-hand happened to him, when he wanted his wrecked BMW towed to the dealership.
“I feel like I got tricked,” Bastida said. “He said, ‘sign this paper and in 30 minutes, your car will be transferred,’ I said, ‘OK,’” he said.
But again, the form he was signing was an authorization for repairs at City Wide Collision Center. And again, the only way to get out of it was to pay a hefty fee of around $2,000.
“I think I got scammed really bad,” Bastida said.
“The consumer is very, very vulnerable,” said Monica Russo, Investigations Manager of the Houston Better Business Bureau. The BBB gives Vickery Auto Storage and City Wide Collision Center an “F” grade for unresolved consumer complaints.
“They’re absolutely holding them hostage. If they can’t pay that fee then they don’t get their car,” Russo said.
In fact, regulators with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation fined Vickery Auto Storage $12,000 for its business practices.
But the company is not alone. Records show over the past three years, the TDLR slapped other Harris County tow truck drivers, storage yards and body shops with more than $620,000 in penalties for similar tactics against consumers.
But is it doing any good?
“I haven’t paid the fines and I don’t agree with the fines,” said Curtis Mounts, owner of Vickery Auto Storage and City Wide Collision Center.
I-Team: “Mr. Mounts, are you just going to thumb your nose at the state?”
Mounts: “I’m not thumbing my nose at the state, the state doesn’t make the right decisions all the time.”
Mounts said he plans to litigate the state fines, despite the fact the window for requesting a hearing expired more than a year ago.
As for the consumers who complained:
“We’re not misleading any customers here. Those consumers in their handwriting, released those vehicles to City Wide Collision,” Mounts said.
But what about those fees he collects when consumers tried to take their car elsewhere?
I-Team: “Two-thousand dollars?”
Mounts: “I didn’t know it was $2,000 or what it was.”
I-Team: “C’mon you didn’t know.”
Mounts: “If it is $2,000, again, the fees are all listed in the contract that the customer signs.”
But Curtis Mounts wouldn’t give the I-Team a copy of any customer contracts, and our consumers say they never got copies of their paperwork either. Mounts said overall, the number of consumer complaints is small compared to the volume of work his companies perform.
After the Texas Department of Licensing fined Mounts $12,000, it still renewed his vehicle storage license in May 2011. But the TDLR later sanctioned him with another $7,000 for other violations, and placed his license “under administrative hold.”
If Vickery Auto Storage does not pay the fines, the state may revoke or suspend its license when it comes up for renewal in June 2012, according to TDLR spokesperson Stephen Bruno.
Meanwhile, the Texas Towing and Storage Association said it supports TDLR’s enforcement actions and said a small group of businesses is creating a bad image for the entire industry.