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A $337.50 gamble in a tow-away zone

September 22, 2007|Sandy Banks

We knew when we left our car in a bank parking lot in Inglewood late Sunday night that we were breaking a rule, if not the law. A trio of signs announced that cars parked in the lot after hours were liable to be towed.

But the line for $5 valet parking at the Dynasty nightclub across the street was long, and there were already half a dozen other cars parked in the Bank of America lot. We were going to dash into the club just long enough to wish a friend happy birthday, have one dance and share a celebratory drink.

Forty-five minutes later we left the club, walked across the street and peered into an empty parking lot. Empty, as in all the cars, including ours, gone. "That's where we parked, right?" asked Johnny, my beau, looking up and down the street as if he hoped the car might have moved itself while we were inside.

We called the number on the sign and reached LAX Towing. They had the car. We could come pick it up from their lot near the airport. And bring $337.50. In cash.

I know what we did was wrong. We gambled and we lost. It's not the first time I have been a traffic scofflaw. But who hasn't played the parking odds -- pulling into the "20 minutes only" spot for a grocery shopping trip that stretches to an hour, taking a space in the flower shop's lot when you're next door getting a pedicure.

I was towed once years ago by the LAPD from a busy street outside the Times building when I failed to move my car before the afternoon rush hour. The tab was $100 and change.

How could this mistake cost three times as much?

Well, there was the $125 impound fee to hook our car to a truck. The $55 towing charge, plus $45 for the dolly to haul it. The $45 storage fee for the hour our car was on their lot. The $25 weekend release fee, because it was Sunday night. The $42.50 after-hour gate fee, because a tow truck driver had to come to the lot to unlock the gate and accept our cash.

As consolation, we tried to spin our loss. We've blown that much money on a weekend before. Let's pretend we visited a spa or spent a fabulous night at a fancy hotel. We reminded each other how lucky we were to be near a bank, have an un-maxed-out ATM account and a friend willing to drive us at midnight to the tow yard.

But something about the whole transaction didn't feel right. I went online to check out local towing laws and found a community of angry California drivers who felt victimized by scamming tow truck drivers.

Twelve years ago, deregulation of the trucking industry removed tow truck companies from local control. So-called bandit companies began springing up, flouting state laws, grabbing cars from streets and parking lots and charging exorbitant rates to desperate drivers who had no recourse but to pay -- or rack up hefty daily storage fees -- if they wanted their cars.

This year, a package of new laws, sought by law enforcement and consumer groups and sponsored by L.A. Democrat Jackie Goldberg before she left the state Assembly last November, brought some order to the industry. Among the new rules:

Companies must take credit cards as payment. Drivers can't tow a car until it has been improperly parked for one hour. Fees are limited to what tow companies that contract with the city charge.

As better informed tow-ees, Johnny and I returned to LAX Towing on Thursday, looking for "Mike Williams," the employee who had demanded cash on Sunday and told us the company's credit card machine was out of order. Instead, we found company CEO Janice Farrow, who expressed surprise when I told her about our encounter.

Of course they take credit cards, she said. They had no "Mike Williams" on their staff. "Are you sure you have the right place?" she asked. We were.

She took a copy of our receipt and said she'd look into it and get back to me.

Just down the street from Inglewood City Hall, a few blocks from where I lost my car, GiGi Berry presides over G.G.'s Restaurant and Bakery and tries to keep her patrons from losing their cars.

The popular restaurant has only a handful of designated parking spaces. Next door is a huge parking lot that belongs to a now-closed Burger King. When I visited, it was virtually empty, but I heeded the tow warning signs this time and parked elsewhere.

G.G.'s customers told me a woman watches from the window of the building next door and calls a tow company whenever cars park improperly in the old Burger King lot.

Berry said she's had customers who left their cars for a few minutes, picked up a meal to go and found their cars gone as well. Those towed have included doctors from nearby Kaiser Permanente, lawyers from the courthouse, family members gathering after a funeral.

"People come back in here crying; they don't have enough money and they can't get their cars," Berry said. "I try to catch people when they come in the door and tell them don't park there. But it's crowded here and there's nowhere to park. . . . They get mad at us, but we're caught in the middle. It breaks our hearts."

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