Tow to nowhere

How to lose your car: Ask the tow company to move it for you.

YOU'VE HEARD THE horror stories about cars improperly impounded off the street by tow jockeys who haul first and ask questions later. You've heard far worse tales of folks living on survival's edge who lost their towed cars entirely to penalties and storage fees, and as a result lost their jobs and homes and wound up on the street without even a car to live in. But Seattle's Alexis Hendricks has a towing horror story to top them all: She asked to have her car towed and wound up having it seized by a tow company for whom "We take checks" means "We take some checks, but not yours."

Hendricks, who is on state support because of a mental disability, had been living in public housing in Southeast Seattle, taking care of her elderly parents. Last month, with the help of other family members and a state-paid counselor, she moved to her own place. The counselor, Dora Simmons, took Hendricks to the nearest tow yard, Columbia Towing on Rainier Avenue, to arrange to have Hendricks' disabled car towed to her sister's home near Sand Point. They asked if Columbia took checks and were told it did.

Simmons and Hendricks say "the man at the counter" told them the tow would cost $77. Columbia Towing president Jackie Currie insists that because her company charges by the mile, "we never give a firm quote, only an estimate." Because the tow ran three miles longer than expected, the tab came to $86.50, plus tax.

Hendricks explained that she only had $50 in cash and would write a check for the balance. The driver saw that her check was drawn on a credit union and refused it. Again, Currie says in a letter rebutting Simmons' own letter of complaint, that's company policy and perfectly legal: State law only requires that tow companies take checks drawn on "major in-state banks" for impounds and says nothing about credit unions or other types of tows. Currie says Columbia began refusing credit union checks last December and posted a notice to that effect. Simmons says she saw no such notice.

THIS SIMPLE CHORE soon became a comi-tragic ordeal. The driver drove Hendricks to her sister's house, where she borrowed her nephew's ATM card, and then to a bank machine so she could get the needed cash. But, unfamiliar with the ATM drill, she was unable to do so. The driver assessed an additional $21 for driving her to the ATM, told her he was impounding her car, and dropped her off near Northgate. Confused and upset, Hendricks eventually found a bus home. Meanwhile, back at the lot, her car began racking up $25 a day in storage charges. (Columbia charges a much higher storage rate than other local tow companies, avowedly because so many of the cars it impounds go unclaimed and are sold at auction; the higher rate means that it can claim more of the sale amount.)

Columbia Towing's Currie insists that Hendricks compounded her problems by insisting on going to her own bank, which was seven miles away, to try to draw cash. She says the driver gave Hendricks a break: He only charged her one-way mileage to the bank and didn't charge her the usual $95 an hour for the 20 minutes he waited there. And she says Hendricks declined his gracious offer of a ride back to the tow yard down on Rainier (not surprisingly, since this would have left her much farther from her destination).

From there, the bill for Hendricks' tow to nowhere rose into the hundreds, and the angry words rose even higher. Hendricks' counselor Simmons fired off a sharp letter to the mayor, Better Business Bureau, King County consumer enforcement office, US Office of Civil Rights, and this paper, recounting Hendricks' travails and demanding that Columbia apologize, drop the additional charges, and tow Hendricks' car as originally agreed. She also accused Columbia of discrimination, "usury-type charges," and an "economic hate crime," not to mention using a loophole in the law to discriminate against the large class of people, including Boeing employees, who hold credit union accounts. Simmons says a national credit union organization is now looking into this practice.

CURRIE FIRED BACK an equally sharp letter demanding that Simmons apologize for "slandering" her family's business which, far from discriminating against the poor, is now celebrating "its 20th year as a successful tow business in the Rainier Valley." And she contended that Simmons and Hendricks' relatives were "negligent" when they let her ride along without advising the driver of her condition. "How in the world was he supposed to know that Alexis should not be left on her own?"

The saga had one happy outcome: Though she refused to tow Hendricks' car again, Currie let her have it back at no charge for the sake of "goodwill"— forgiving charges that were now approaching $1,000. Simmons says she'll still press the issue of tow company accountability on a radio talk show and in official venues. (One place for the city or state to start would be to set limits on the storage rates tow companies charge auto owners, to prevent extortion from this most captive of markets.)

Currie argues in her letter that it's unfair to expect too much of the towers: "Our employees are skilled, professional tow drivers, not 'trained' Mental Health Therapist[s]" like Simmons. But at $95 an hour, tow drivers do charge as much as therapists. And considering the desperate people and circumstances they deal with, perhaps they should receive a little training. Or at least some rudimentary instruction in customer service. Still, Hendricks' ordeal may have one benefit. It's raised an alarm at the Washington Credit Union League, which will lobby to get the law changed so tow companies will have to accept credit union checks. Legislators might also want to remove "in-state" from the definition of valid bank checks. With nearly all Washington banks owned out-of-state, notes Credit Union League vice president Stacy Augustine, that standard means tow companies need never take a check. Unless they want to be nice. . . .

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