HOUSTON—It’s a lesson that many drivers in Houston have learned the hard way—some tow truck drivers will tow a car and then charge owners thousands of dollars to get it back, essentially holding the vehicle for ransom.

Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, said the problem goes deep, even deeper than the four individuals who were recently charged with deceiving drivers into signing contracts for unnecessary and expensive repairs. The comments on an online article about the arrests showed that many people have had similar experiences, he said.

“Consumers are aware that there are some problems out there and that there are some businesses who are ripping people off,” Hanna told the SE Texas Record. “And if you talk to insurance investigators, they'll tell you the same thing: There are a lot of bad characters out there. I'm not going to throw a blanket over all of them and say they're all bad, but in any business you're going to have some bad apples; and in this case, we certainly have more than one.”

There are options for drivers who find themselves in need of a tow. In a news release, the Insurance Council recommended never signing a blank form offered by the tow truck driver and reading any documents carefully to understand the total cost of towing. Drivers should also specifically request having their car taken to a licensed vehicle storage facility, as those are regulated, where body shops aren’t.

In Houston, vehicles that break down on the freeway are covered by the city’s Safe-Clear program, which has authorized towing companies to move a car off the road for repairs and costs $60 to be towed 1 mile from the nearest freeway exit. If the vehicle is blocking traffic, then the charge is $155.50 for up to 20 miles from the nearest exit.

If a motorist does end up having a vehicle held by a body shop or towing company, the best course of action is to call his or her insurance company, Hanna said, as they might be able to offer help, even if the towing isn’t covered.

“Their insurance company will work with them as best they can to get their vehicle out of there,” he said. “If nothing else, see if they have any recommendations, because they may have worked with a particular company before and would know what to expect.”

Motorists should also keep in mind that they can file complaints, he said. Even after they have their car back, motorists have the ability to take their issue to state regulators or to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau.

“They may want to file a complaint with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation,” which regulates towing companies, he said. “They need to tell someone 'Hey, I've got a problem with this particular business.' They need to report it to someone. If they feel like they're getting ripped off, the public needs to know about that.”

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