I-Team: NYC Drivers Call Foul Over Towing Practices

Last year, the city received 1,400 complaints from people who felt like they were illegally towed from private parking lots

I-Team cameras captured a tow truck that swooped in and moved a woman’s minivan after she parked it in a 7-Eleven in Brooklyn to go to the bathroom, pulling the vehicle away in less than 66 seconds.

“I had to go to the restroom,” said Xing Feng.

Feng is just one of the many people who have say they have fallen victim to predatory towing practices in New York City. Last year, the city received 1,400 complaints from people who felt like they were illegally towed from private parking lots.

Feng’s car was towed last week after she stopped at the convenience store on Coney Island Avenue. She said she got a coffee at the store but went across the street because it didn’t have a restroom. She was gone for less than five minutes, but her van was gone when she came back.

She called the number on a tow sign in the lot, and the tow truck returned with her van still onboard. 

“He told me I have to pay $217, cash. He wouldn’t take a check,” said Feng.

The Custom Towing driver declined to give his name, but told the I-Team that he was charging Feng for the tow and a charge to return her car to her. He called it a "consensual tow."

The company that moved Feng’s car might have broken New York City’s rules about towing. Though drivers can’t leave a private lot even for a minute without facing the risk of being towed, the companies that move the cars have to follow specific rules.

For one, every tow must be authorized by the owner or the manager of the store – and it’s not clear if Custom Towing did in this case. Tow truck drivers also have to bring the car to their towing yard at a cost of $125. The city says they can’t charge extra to drive the car back.

If the driver returns to the parking lot while the tow truck is in the lot, they can only charge $65. And they have to accept at least two credit cards and provide receipts. But that’s not the experience that many people – including Feng -- said they have had.

Nick Farajian says a Custom Towing truck ruined the bumper of his brand new Lexus, which has cost him $6,000 to replace.

“He said that I wasn't parked properly, I said that's fine, give me a ticket but don't break my car," he said.

Farajian had gone inside the same 7-Eleven to buy water. He said that within minutes he walked out and saw his Lexus SUV on the end of a Custom Towing truck. He watched as the car came loose and fell in the middle of the busy street. Then, to add insult to injury, Farajian said the tow truck driver charged him $230 to have his car returned.

Vinny Torre and his wife, Lemonia, were fed up with what they saw and started a Facebook page for people to share their horror stories and exchange information.

“People are getting double-charged, threatened for cash, and you see people crying for their car,” said Vinny Torre of Brooklyn. “It’s not right.”

According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates tow truck companies, Custom Towing has 88 complaints on file for practices such as overcharging, demanding cash, not giving receipts and damaging cars.

Because there are so many complaints against Custom Towing, city officials are taking action. The DCA has notified the company that its licenses will not be renewed if it cannot dispute the allegations.

"For those who don't follow the rules,” explained acting DCA commissioner Alba Pico, “it's a way for them to make quick money and take advantage of consumers."

Custom Towing and 7-Eleven both declined to comment to NBC 4 New York.

If you feel like you’ve been improperly towed, you can call 311 or file a complaint online with the department of consumer affairs. It’s important to keep all your receipts if you have them. Consumer affairs can try to get you your money back.

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