What you need to know to outsmart tow truck scammers

By: Rebecca Lee on June 6, 2016

Swift, keen-eyed, and poised to pounce. Tow truck drivers are fighting for your business. Here’s how to not get scammed if you give in and take the tow.

A few weeks ago, I was in a bizarre situation. My truck broke down on the 407 highway and not one, not two, but five tow trucks approached us. I had already called CAA, but if I hadn’t been warned about tow truck scams before, I would have happily agreed to rig my vehicle up to the first tow truck that came my way. And what’s wrong with that?

Well, a couple things. Particularly if you don’t know how tow truck schemes work. Here‘s what I learned about getting a tow in Ontario.

Brace yourself: chasers get there first

Chasers are the tow trucks that race to the scene of an accident/breakdown, often ahead of the police and before CAA, and eagerly offer their services. They troll for the stranded and the vulnerable. They’re not bad people, but they purposely catch you at a bad time to try to make a buck. Don’t let them intimidate or overwhelm you.

If possible, decide on your course of action before any tow trucks rush over. Do you want to tap into your roadside services membership, or do you need a tow immediately?

CAA will get there eventually

CAA tells all members to expect a wait time of at least 45 minutes, but some waits can be as long as 90 minutes. In my case, CAA arrived in 60 minutes. My recommendation? Put your data to work. Use CAA’s estimated wait time chart to get a sense of when your tow truck will arrive.

To wait or not to wait?

Safety first. If you’re not in a dangerous position (you’re stuck in a parking lot), wait for CAA. You already paid for those tows and you know what you’re getting yourself into. But if you are in a dangerous position (your car broke down in the middle of an intersection), you may have to take a tow from a chaser.

CAA probably won’t reimburse you for a tow from another company

“Don’t worry, CAA will reimburse you if you take a tow from us”. Those comforting words were repeated to me by several tow truck drivers. But that’s not exactly true. I asked my CAA tow truck driver if I would have been reimbursed then later confirmed his answer (“no”) with CAA Member Services.

Here’s when CAA would likely reimburse you for a tow from another company:

  • If you were involved in an accident and the police instructed you to move your vehicle immediately.
  • If the wait time for a CAA tow truck was unreasonably long. But CAA’s definition of “unreasonably long” is unclear. Remember: a 45-minute wait is standard, and many longer wait times are listed online. So use your judgment. If you do take a tow from another company, submit a receipt to CAA for reimbursement and cross your fingers.

Tow trucks are in it for the money

If you take a tow from your friendly neighbourhood chaser, keep a couple crucial points in mind:

  • Tow truck drivers may try to lure you into specific auto shops, so they can collect a referral fee. They’re not necessarily recommending a shop because it’s the cheapest or does the best work.
  • In some Ontario cities, it’s illegal for a tow truck driver to recommend a shop if you didn’t ask. That’s why tow trucks/auto shops inflate their fees and pass you a pricey bill — to cover their own butts in case they have to pay a penalty.
  • If you move your vehicle to another shop after the initial tow, the original tow truck and shop will still charge you for storage and admin fees, which won’t be cheap.

Your car goes where you tell it to go

According to the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, you have the right to choose where your vehicle is towed to. As long as you weren’t involved in a car accident, you can tell your tow truck driver to take your vehicle to either of these places:

  • Your regular auto shop: If you’ve previously done work on your car and your insurer covered it, return to the same shop. Your insurer only reimburses you for repairs performed at an approved shop. If you’ve never taken your car in before, contact your insurer ASAP to find out which auto shops it works with.
  • Home: doing the repairs yourself or enlisting the help of friends or family? Ask the tow truck to take your baby home. That’s what I did. Thanks, dad!

If you were involved in a collision, your car needs to be assessed before it can be repaired. Again, speak with your insurer immediately and ask where you should have your vehicle towed. Usually, it’s to any of the following places:

  • A Collision Reporting Centre
  • A police station
  • Another secure location

New tow truck requirements take effect in 2017

The odds will be (a little) more in your favour next year. Ontario’s notorious tow truck scams are partly to blame for the province’s ridiculously high auto insurance rates. That's why the provincial government is taking action to protect drivers.

Come 2017, tow truck drivers will be required to do the following:

  • Give you a detailed invoice that discloses all fees, including towing and storage
  • Tell you if they’re affiliated with certain auto shops
  • Let you access your stored vehicle, free of charge, to get your belongings

Final thoughts on the tow truck industry

It’s easy to be tempted by chasers. Sure. You’re iffy about their business model, but you’re stranded, and they’re available. If you don’t want to wait for CAA, or you don’t have a roadside assistance package, it’s okay to take a tow from a chaser. But be smart about it.

 

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