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This post has been updated.

For better or worse, most of us in Southern California drive cars to get around. At some point in our car-centric lives, almost all of us have experienced the horror of walking out to get in our vehicle and — bam — it’s gone.

If it wasn’t stolen, it was towed. That initial feeling of shock is often followed by horror stories filled with hefty fines and sordid interactions.

VOSD’s Liam Dillon recently looked into the towing industry and detailed the local and state investigations into whether thousands of dollars in contributions from towing companies were illegally laundered into local political campaigns. People seemed to react pretty strongly to the story, and not necessarily because they care deeply about campaign finance rules. Rather, towing companies seem to stir some intense feelings in people who’ve had bad interactions with them.

We put out a call to our readers asking for their towing experiences. Surprisingly, not all of them are resoundingly negative. Here are the top stories we received.

These submissions have been edited for style, length and clarity.

Taking Towers to Task

Many years ago, my car was towed from a private parking lot during a community street fair in North Park. It turned out to have been illegally towed by a renegade tow truck business operating out of Chula Vista. They did not have authorization to remove vehicles from that property, but took advantage of the special event and lack of street parking.

I finally tracked it down, on a Sunday night. The person who answered the phone told me they were closing, so I would have to pick it up the next day and pay an overnight storage fee, plus a gas surcharge since they drove all the way from the city of San Diego to Chula Vista. A friend drove me to their location the next day. It turned out to be a vacant lot with RVs and trailers parked on it that people were living in. As we arrived early in the morning, people were walking around in pajamas, with coffee cups in their hands. I had my set of car keys and walked to the back of the lot to find my car, while my friend tried to find something that looked like an office. I found the car and on the spur of the moment decided to simply drive it away.

I knew it had been towed illegally. I knew these people were outlaw operators who had no right to do what they did. So I opened the car, started it up and slowly drove it out of the gate to the shocked looks and brief foot pursuit of the people in pajamas. I drove a block away and realized I had left my friend behind who had no idea what the plan was. That’s because there was no plan — I just wanted my car back. As I turned into the parking lot of a gas station, intending to call my friend, I suddenly saw his car speed past with a pick-up truck close behind, in hot pursuit.

They all assumed I would head for the freeway and north to San Diego. Instead, I had parked at a convenience store and called the local police department. Then I called my friend on his cell phone and told him to turn around and come back to where I had stopped. A Chula Vista police officer arrived and listened to both the tow truck driver and me make our case. Unfortunately he had no jurisdiction since the car had been taken from San Diego, so he advised me to settle with the operator (even though he agreed what he had done was illegal). In the end I paid a reduced fee, getting some measure of satisfaction from making that guy work extra hard for his money. (Maybe now they get dressed before breakfast.)

— Lori Saldaña, Clairemont

The $18,000 Haul

At 7:45 a.m., I legally parked in front of Sierra Springs Water on San Diego Mission Road, where I have worked for 30 years. Both sides of the street were full of cars, and I was lucky to find a spot.  At 5 p.m., after work, I went to the street and found all the cars were towed, including mine, because they were resurfacing the street. The paving company forgot to put out their portable “no parking” signs in advance of their activity.

So, they put them out when their crew arrived that morning at 8 a.m. and called the cops and the tow companies.  About 50 of us got $90 fines for illegal parking, plus the $360 towing fee with Road One. Do the math on that one and Road One and the city scored some big bucks on their fraud. Folks were “somewhat angry” at the Road One office, where we were forced to shell out $360 each to retrieve our stolen vehicles. Road One made about $18,000 for their police-assisted crime.

I called the paving company to complain and they referred me to Road One, who referred me to the police, who referred me to the paving company.
You’d think it would be a little suspicious to the police that both sides of the street were full of cars supposedly illegally parked. I guess they were all working parts of the scam. My sincere thanks to Road One Towing, the San Diego Police and especially the paving company. You opened my eyes to a disturbing reality.
This incident completely reversed my opinion of the city government and its workings.
— Steve Cirone, El Cajon

‘The Cop Chose to Screw Me’

In 2009, I walked out my front door to find a police officer with a large four-by-four vehicle running, standing near my 18-foot trailered boat. When I asked him what was going on, he told me that he was having the boat towed because the “permanent license” had expired six months prior. The boat had been registered every two years, and apparently the permanent license for the trailer needed to be renewed every three years for a $10 fee.

When I asked him if I could run down to AAA’s DMV office to straighten it out and find out why I had not received a registration renewal, he stated that he was impounding the trailer and boat and had called a tow truck.

The boat and trailer were towed, placing all items on the boat that had not been removed under impound and the boat — although registered — and trailer subject to being sold by the towing company for unpaid storage fees.

My towing vehicle had been having electrical problems, and I ended up having to take it to a specialist who diagnosed an internal alternator short requiring replacement before I could pay the towing and storage fees for the boat and trailer.

Those storage fees were over $800 — and the DMV trailer registration fee was still only $10.

I never received the registration because the address that the DMV had on file had the wrong ZIP code while the street address was correct.

The cop could have put a ticket on the trailer noticing that the trailer was in violation and would be towed, could have allowed me to hook up the trailer and take it to DMV to register or handed me the warning and enabled me to take care of it.

Instead, the cop chose to screw me and force me to spend money that I could have used to pay bills after being laid off in January 2009.

I am not a fan of the police based upon that interaction.

— Kevin Swanson, Paradise Hills

HOA Horrors

It was about 10 years ago, my car was towed away right from outside of my garage.

I parked my car right outside of my garage for a brief stop at home after work, since I needed to go somewhere else that evening. About half an hour later, or even less than that, when I came out from home, my car was gone!

You can imagine how surprised I was. I walked around, doubting my memory: Where had I parked my car?

After few hours, finally I decided it was stolen. So I called police. They told me I should check with the towing company.

I paid around $350, not to mention all the trouble and time to finally get my car back the next afternoon, dusty already even though it was only overnight.

What an experience. The reason it got towed was that our HOA did have a policy at that time that car couldn’t be parked in front of garages.

I suspect that the HOA has benefited from the towing company, otherwise how did the towing guys know about it? It was almost like he was there waiting for any chances. Later, I did see a towing truck patrolling our neighborhood. I almost wanted to drive around to see whether anyone parked “illegally” and warn them that the tow truck was around.

I also suspect that I was not the only victim, because I dont think they are enforcing this policy now.

This was my first experience with American towing. Eye-opening.

However, I still love America, very much, for the freedom, so much, much, much better than China. An unpleasant experience with unexpected car towing is just so so minor comparing for the daily human rights abuses in China.

— Jie Yang, Scripps Ranch

A Non-Horror Story

My last two encounters with contractors for the Automobile Club of Southern California were actually good ones. One took place after 10 at night on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, where I actually flagged down a passing tow truck to help me with my dead battery.  The driver was helpful, courteous and was not in any way scary or pushy. I’m a 65-year-old woman with rudimentary knowledge of car electrical systems, and there was no attempt to make things sound worse than they were.

Similarly, at my home in the UTC area, I phoned the Auto Club for battery-charging help, and received excellent and timely service.  I realize that there are predator tow truckers out there, but I’ve been lucky enough not to encounter them!

— Linda Canada, University City

‘Make it Worth My Time’

I work near SDSU and in the last two weeks before school started all the students are moving in with their U-Hauls and cars packed with necessities. The tow trucks looked like hookers trawling for sailors. Up and down, back and forth, just waiting for some infraction. What lowlifes.

On another note, the Target by Sports Arena, about 15 years ago, I parked my car out in the lot and went shopping. About 45 minutes later, Target bags in hand, I came out to see my car being strapped onto a tow truck.

I said, “Hey, just what the heck do you think you’re doing?”

He said, “This yours?”

I said, “Yes, what the heck do  you think your doing?”

He said, “Well. I got a complaint that people in this car went over to the Sports Arena for the concert.”

“Obviously not,” I said. “Take it down.”

“Well” he said, “Company policy says once it’s up, it’s gone. … But if you make it worth my time, I can forget the whole thing.”

Like he was doing me a favor. I then sent someone to call the police, and told him if he takes it, I’ll press charges of theft. After 25 minutes, he eventually told me that I could pay him $27 and he would take it down. He still had it. And so did I. He must have thought I was BS-ing him and didn’t think I called the police, but they eventually showed up, I showed them my bag and receipt.

Yes, though I committed no crime, I had to prove my innocence. He then told the tow truck driver to release my car. The tow truck driver was allowed to just release my car and drive away. I will never use Western Towing, and if I could, I’d never use SDPD either.

— Melanie Lucero, Lemon Grove

Mike’s the Man

I’m sure you will get plenty of negative stories but I just want to share my experiences.

I’m retired now and live in Escondido. I worked at Guy Hill Cadillac in Pacific Beach as a technician for 26 years before they closed.

For 19 of those years, besides working in the dealership, I also worked as the Cadillac Roadside technician. I was on call 24-7 and performed emergency repairs from one end of the county to the other whenever a Cadillac under warranty was disabled.

If I could not perform the repairs safely and within one hour, I would have the car towed to our dealership or the closest Cadillac dealership per the customer’s request.

I had used different towing services with mixed results. But the one company I used exclusively was Western Towing for my last 10 years as the Roadside technician. They had a driver named Mike who I requested as he was on time, courteous and always careful with the vehicles I entrusted to him. Never once did I have a negative experience with Mike or Western Towing. I don’t know if either are still around but I felt compelled to let you know that I thought very highly of them both.

— Dave Reynoso, Escondido

Bad Karma

Not long after we moved into a live-work loft on J Street, we discovered that the streets are closed throughout Padres season and for Petco Park events. Parking was $38 in the lots, and there wasn’t even a place to stop on any nearby street. Parking in front of the loft building is prohibited, and there’s no written provision for stopping — even long enough to unload my loved one, who is quadriplegic. A police car (sometimes manned, sometimes not) is often parked a few feet from our door. A few times when we got home during a game, I explained to the policeman that I would wheel my loved one inside, situate him and return to the van within a few minutes to park the dozen or so necessary blocks away.

One chilly evening, there were neither policeman nor traffic direction personnel to be found. I parked in front of our residence, and left the van’s side door wide open and the lift down, so anyone could immediately tell our van was a disability vehicle in use. I took my loved one to the loft, made sure he was comfortable and returned to the front of the building approximately 15 minutes later to find the van gone. At first I feared it had been stolen, so I called the police only to find the van had been towed.

I immediately took a cab from East Village to the tow yard off Imperial Avenue. I found the lift shoved most of the way back in the van. The fine for stopping outside our door and taking a person inside who cannot propel his own wheelchair was nearly $400! Karmicly, the Padres lost that night, too, and there were no apologies for any of it!

— Roz Alexander-Kasparik, East Village

Impound Problems

Not really a towing story but an impound saga. Our Dodge van was stolen from a Fashion Valley parking structure in the middle of the day. About a week later, SDPD called to say the van had been found. It was stopped when crossing back into San Diego at the border. It had been impounded by Customs agents. They said it was involved in bringing illegal aliens into the U.S., and they were investigating.

While we awaited word on when it would be released, we rented a car, covered by our insurance policy, which would pay for the rental for up to a month. About two weeks into the rental, my agent called to say they would no longer pay for it because my car was impounded as a result of illegal activity. I protested that indeed it was involved in illegal activity — IT WAS STOLEN FROM ME. After much heated discussion, they finally agreed to pay for the one month. Unfortunately, the government held my van for a full three months before they would release the vehicle. A total nightmare, and when I asked local police why it would be held that long, they indicated they never needed to impound cars that long for an investigation.

— Brad Monroe, Rancho San Diego

Update: One of the stories that appeared in the original version of this post has been removed at the author’s request.

Kinsee Morlan

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

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