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August 24, 2016

City on alleged bait-and-trap towing scheme: 'We know we're not doing enough'

More motorists claim they parked in legal spots only to find later their vehicles had been towed

Motorists Parking
george smith towing video Chris Norman/Facebook

This screen capture of a Facebook user's video shows a flatbed tow truck preparing to haul a vehicle from South Broad Street.

City officials and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office confirmed Wednesday they're investigating allegations of a Philadelphia towing company's bait-and-trap scheme, leaving one city spokesperson to say, "We know we're not doing enough."

The response comes a day after PhillyVoice detailed one man's experience with a towing company now identified as George Smith Towing, although city and state companies would not confirm the company is at the center of their investigations.

Adam Malliet described how he parked his car in what he thought was an acceptable spot on South Broad Street just below of Washington Avenue in July. He returned to find a tow sign he swears wasn't there when he parked and his car seconds from being hauled away.

It's not the only allegation, either. A quick internet search reveals a digital trail of Philadelphians noting similar experiences, including one Facebook page called "George Towingscam Smith" that is dedicated to posting "illegal towing signs" belonging to the company.

The unaccredited business has an "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau where 21 closed complaints have been filed against it.  George Smith Towing also has dozens of negative reviews on its Yelp page.

Karen Guss, the communications director at the Philadelphia Department of License and Inspections, said L&I is aware of the allegations and knows that Philadelphia struggles with predatory towing. She said with the new mayoral administration came some reorganization to the department, which she is hopeful will crack down on issues like the alleged bait-and-trap. 

The city already has developed a task force that's been meeting for months and handles claims like this one, Guss said.

"(The bait-and-trap scheme) is something that is of great interest, and we feel that Philadelphians shouldn't be victimized," she said. "We want to find out the best way that as a city government, we can help bring in the solution."

Guss said they're looking at how other cities handle issues of predatory towing and are experimenting with their own ideas. One, that she said didn't work, was to consolidate all of the towing companies under the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Some of the complaints the department has gotten appear to involve criminal activity, she said.

Guss knows the city isn't doing all it can to help minimize the problem. For starters, L&I isn't enforcing a city ordinance that says all the signs posted by towing companies need to be reported to the department.

Currently, there's no running list of approved signs, and even if there was, she said there wouldn't be a way to tell if the signs were legitimate.

Whether or not there is a valid reason for the towing, Guss said and the bill outlines, there must be a clear sign present and visible to the public.

Katie Otto said Tuesday that her car was towed by George Smith Towing from what she thought was a legal spot on South Broad Street between Federal and Washington streets.

"(There's this) junky towing sign in a bucket that some folks said wasn't up earlier in the day and then was," she said. "It just seems really weird and strange and when I went over to pick up my car, the cab driver was like, 'I was towed from there too!''"

She said she's opened a consumer protection investigation with the state A.G.'s office after the city's District Attorney office directed her there.

Wednesday morning she said she is pursuing recourse and couldn't comment further.

Public Affairs Officer Tanya Little said in an email Wednesday morning that, "The videos and allegations regarding a particular towing company has been brought to our attention. An investigation with the Major Crimes Unit is active and ongoing."

Facebook videos posted by Chris Norman began circulating widely Tuesday afternoon. Norman lives in an apartment that looks down at Malliet's parking spot south of Washington Avenue. One of his videos amassed more than 130,000 views by Wednesday afternoon. (Warning: The video below contains profanity.)

Sadie Martin, an A.G. spokesperson, confirmed that the office has received complaints about "a Philadelphia towing company" but wasn't able to confirm how many or who the complaints were against. 

"At this point, the only thing I can tell you is that the only complaints coming into the office would be thoroughly reviewed," she said.

Martin said the complainants should hear back between two and three weeks.

George Smith Towing Co. charges $175 and $25 per day storage for towed vehicles. On Wednesday an employee who answered the phone at company's office said she couldn't comment on the allegations, and the company's lawyer was "looking into it" though she couldn't reveal the name of an attorney.

"My boss informed me don't speak to nobody," she said.

The woman hung up and then declined to get her boss or someone who could comment when reached a second time.

Mariano Mattei, of South Philly, had initially thought the Mercedes in Norman's Facebook video was his because he had his car towed under similar circumstances from the same spot.

He said he was heading to Boot & Saddle on Broad and Ellsworth streets last month when he found streetside parking. He inspected the area around the car, saw no signs indicating that he couldn't park there, and went into the bar. When he came back, he said his car was gone and a "shiny new sign" was posted on the fence.

Mattei was out more than $200 and said he reached out to the company who said there was a curb cut at the spot. There's no colored marking though and the area is fenced with no opening, Mattei responded.

He didn't try to fight it with the police or L&I, he said because he thought it wouldn't lead anywhere.

"What am I going to do, hire a lawyer? It's not worth it," he said. "People accept it. If you don't have means to fight something like that, why bother?"

He said he didn't realize how many people this was happening to until he saw Norman's video. Mattei hopes that with more coming forward and the city and state's investigations, new laws will be established or reimbursements will be issued.

"Tow companies are notoriously difficult to deal with," he said. "I hate to liken them to a mafia, but they kind of are."