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Pennsylvania insurance fraud agency warns of “wreck chasers” charging thousands after towing cars

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — On Monday, KDKA-TV showed you the invoices — bills topping $10,000 to tow a car. Unreasonable, outrageous? Most folks say yes, but it is happening.

So what if it happened to you or a family member? What are your rights? And how can you prevent it from happening? KDKA-TV lead investigator Andy Sheehan has more on what your rights are if you’re in a crash and what might need to happen to reform the towing system.

You’re in an accident. Your car is damaged and you’re disoriented, maybe even injured. Suddenly one or more tow truck drivers show up wanting to tow your car. But even if it’s less than a mile, going with the wrong one may cost you or your insurance company a small fortune.

“I feel like he stole my car. Yeah, I just want my car back,” Emily Burton said.

It could be thousands for the tow and thousands more in related fees: recovery fees, gate fees, administrative fees and storage fees. In this case, Emily Burton’s insurance company had to pay more than $10,000 just to get her car back.

“That’s beyond outrageous. That’s ripping off your neighbor. That’s taking advantage of someone in a difficult time. It’s a form of theft in my opinion,” said Christopher Sloan with PA Insurance Fraud Prevention Authority.

So what are your rights? First and foremost, you are not required to turn your car over to any tow truck operator. If the car is not blocking traffic, you can call AAA or if you’re in the city, Pittsburgh police say you can insist on having the city’s contracted carrier, McGann & Chester, take your car anywhere you want for a flat rate.

“For a flatbed truck right now, it’s $180 dollars. Storage fees are $25. Now if the vehicle’s over a hill or flipped over, something like that, there are additional fees as could be expected,” said Sgt. Detective Thomas Huerbin of the Pittsburgh Police Auto Squad.

But if you do go with one of the on-scene towers, make sure their company’s name, address and phone number is clearly painted on the door. And Huerbin of the Pittsburgh Police Auto Squad says don’t sign a blank invoice permitting them to tow your car until they’ve listed all fees and their costs.

“If you’re in an accident, you need to know exactly what the fees are gonna be. That thing needs to be filled out completely before you sign anything on there because if it’s not you, then your insurance company’s gonna be on the hook for it,” said Huerbin.

“The majority of towing companies are honest, hard-working people. And they provide a service we need,” Sloan said.

The insurance lobby says in most cases, it’s safe to place your vehicle in the hands of a tower but says you need to beware of those who race to accident scenes and fight with competitors — some with near-deadly consequences, like a tow truck driver who was paralyzed after being shot by another on Washington Boulevard. And a father and his towing pair who were recently sentenced for a shootout that ended up wounding a bystander on the North Side.

“The wreck chasers, they’re a problem. They cost us inflated rates. They have violent incidents fighting over tows. They put people in jeopardy,” Sloan said.

To avoid all that, Philadelphia has implemented a rotation system with registered towers to respond to accidents, but while a similar proposal failed to get off the ground here in Pittsburgh, the PA Insurance Fraud Prevention Authority says there needs to be a system statewide.

“We need strong legislation and an ordinance that would govern the Commonwealth. I want to see the legitimate tow companies, the honest, hard-working men and women that do this, make a great wage, make a great living, but I don’ “I don’t want to see consumers ripped off,” Sloan said.

KDKA-TV reached out to state legislators, including state Sen. Wayne Fontana, who said they will try to craft legislation to address this problems where other efforts have failed.

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