Beware of Car Towing Companies That Patrol Private Parking Lots

“It’s up to the consumer to advocate for themselves,” Ms. Brombach, the author of the towing report, said. Most states have consumer protection offices that can be a good first stop with a complaint.

It helps to be aware of the possibility of a tow when parking. People assume that a lot near a store or other business is public, Mr. Friedman said, but it’s usually private property — so act accordingly. “It’s a mind-set consumers have to have,” he said.

Scrutinize any signs on the lot that provide information about parking and any restrictions, he advised, and resist the urge to park and run errands at additional locations if the spot is dedicated to a specific store. If you have any doubt, find another spot. It may help to take a picture of your car, noting the time and any relevant signs with your phone, in case it can be used to challenge a towing fee, he said.

Here are some questions and answers about towing fees:

What should I do if my car is towed?

If a phone number is posted in the parking lot, call it. Otherwise, call the nonemergency number of the local police department. In many places, local rules require towing companies to report a vehicle to the police before hauling it away.

There’s typically little you can do to get back your car until you pay the fee. “It’s a highly unusual transaction from the get-go,” Mr. Friedman said, in that you have to pay the money and challenge the fee afterward.

Ask for an itemized bill when you retrieve your car. “Fees can stack up,” Ms. Brombach said. You may be charged a “release” fee, and an “after hours” fee, and you’ll want to be sure you weren’t overcharged.

If you can prove that your car was illegally towed, you are eligible for reimbursement in 27 states, the report notes. In 17 of those states, you are entitled to collect damages as well as reimbursement.

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