Auto repair shop allegedly holds car hostage, victim believes police are complicit in towing scams

Exploitation, lying by omission, and possible police corruption: a case study of tow truck scams and how to protect yourself
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ETOBICOKE — Over the Family Day long weekend, an East York man reportedly fell prey to an ongoing tow truck scam that has been endemic in Ontario for years. John Doe, the car owner who asked to stay anonymous, said he was rear-ended when a seemingly well-intentioned tow truck driver offered to transport, store, and fix his vehicle pro bono. 

What appeared as a charitable gesture ultimately resulted in a C$871.66 bill in towing fees, and no apparent means of escape — not even with police intervention.

“They are providing services by telling lies,” Doe said about the tow truck company in a phone interview. He told INN24 that at the collision scene, his vehicle had only a “minor dent” in the backside of the car.

Tow truck frauds have reportedly run unabated throughout the province for years. 

Doe’s 2009 Acura MDX got dented in its backside due to the accident (PHOTO: Courtesy of John Doe)

What’s a tow truck scam?

A CBC Marketplace exposé from 2015 revealed the machinations of tow truck drivers who collaborate with auto body repair shops, and receive a commission for steering cars to partner garages. In the business, these tow truck drivers are known as “chasers.” According to the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, chasers are often owned or controlled by the repair shops themselves.

Chasers usually arrive at the accident scene without being summoned, with some even claiming to be working for the local police, as seen in the Marketplace episode. Even though the chaser’s schemes may be illegal in some cities, they are usually motivated by handsome referral fees from garages. 

“A tow truck driver may be breaking a municipal bylaw by recommending a repair shop without being asked,” according to Financial Services. 

“To recover these referral fees, tow truck drivers and vehicle repair or body shops may “pad” their bills. In the end, you and other policyholders end up paying.”

Mel Hodge, INN24’s legal consultant, said that towing and storage frauds of this nature have exacerbated in recent years. At their worst, these scams have even culminated in gun violence and turf wars in the province.

“There needs to be more regulation in the industry to prevent and stop these third-party towing companies from adding insult to injury,” said Hodge. 

Without stringent legal oversight, it is unsurprising that the average driver — disquieted by a car crash — would get trapped by a chaser’s deception.

“It’s a very slippery slope,” he said about towing scams. Hodge was embroiled in a similar scenario when a chaser approached him after a collision in 2018. Thankfully, Hodge managed to manoeuvre out of the situation.

Others, however, have not been so lucky.

According to the CBC investigation, towing companies can charge for everything from mileage to towing to storage of the car. Often, several tow trucks swarm an accident scene to offer their services entirely unbidden — a typical stratagem of chasers. 

“It comes down to almost a race,” a tow truck operator told CBC. “And how well you can talk to somebody and get them to believe whatever you say.”

Chasers are incentivized to deliver even mildly damaged cars to repair shops. An Ottawa tow truck driver told CBC that they often get a commission anywhere between C$200 to C$500 for taking a vehicle to a garage. 

What happened to Doe this Family Day weekend appeared to be a textbook case of tow truck scams.

Tow truck driver intercepted car owner post-accident

On February 12, Doe was on his way to a gas station in Etobicoke when another car crashed into his. 

Both parties were driving down Dundas St W, Doe said. When they approached the traffic light at Shaver Ave S, both cars accelerated to about 60 km/h to pass the yellow light.

Doe said that after he passed the intersection, he wanted to turn into the Esso gas station on the right and signalled to change to the right lane. However, the other driver had not stopped in time as both vehicles were too driving fast. 

The other car collided into Doe’s as he was turning into Esso as a result, he recalled.

Doe (A) was driving in the middle lane while the other driver (B) was in the right lane on Dundas. The two collided just past the intersection at Dundas St W and Shaver Ave S. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Google Maps)

Doe said he is a new immigrant and that this was his first car accident since he moved to Toronto. Unfamiliar with the standard protocol following a collision, he consulted a friend over the phone about what to do next while he was in the Esso parking lot.

He exchanged information with the other party — a couple — and they told Doe not to call the police and to instead file an accident report at a collision centre first. Doe agreed.

Hodge advises drivers to always contact the authorities after a car accident, big or small. Depending on the police’s workload that day, they may dispatch the fire department instead. 

In either case, “It’s better to call someone because the accident will be properly documented,” according to Hodge. Forgoing police intervention could put the car owner at risk of having the other party distort the story when they arrive at the collision centre.

Hodge also said that the couple’s refusal to call the police raised red flags. 

“When somebody says “Don’t call the police,” it tells me they are either driving with a suspended license or have some other issue with their license,” he said.

Three minutes after their decision, Doe said, a tow truck driver appeared and offered to Doe to sit inside his truck. “With a smiling face, he said, “Brother, please sit in my car, it is cold outside,”” he recalled.

Esso station at 5470 Dundas St W, Etobicoke (PHOTO: Courtesy of Google Maps)

“If he wanted to drive his car, he could have driven his car. I gave him his options at the accident scene,” the truck driver — who wished to remain nameless — told INN24 over the phone. 

He also claimed that it was standard procedure for tow truck operators to wait until the authorities arrive at the collision scene before approaching car owners. 

The truck driver claimed he had done so — but on the other driver’s advice, Doe said he never called the police following the crash. 

The truck driver also disputed Doe’s claims that he had coerced him into accepting his towing services.

According to Doe, the tow truck driver offered to bring his car to the North Collision Reporting Centre in North York. Allegedly, the driver said he would provide a rental car and repair services, all for free.

The tow truck driver, however, denied saying so.

Doe was “shocked” from the accident and deemed it best not to drive, even though he still considered the car driveable. Based on the image Doe provided, his vehicle suffered nothing beyond cosmetic damage after the crash.

“This guy is doing his job, and he knows better than me,” Doe said about his thought process.

Tow truck operators must disclose any referral fees 

In January 2017, the Ontario Consumer Protection Act made amendments to the statute, including a “Disclosure of Interest” subsection. This stipulated that tow service providers must tell car owners they receive financial compensation for bringing a car to a particular repair shop.

However, “If a tow and storage provider fails to make the disclosure required […] the provider shall not demand or receive payment from a consumer or a person acting on behalf of the consumer in respect of tow and storage services provided before disclosure is made.”

When asked if he had made such disclosure of interest, the tow truck driver declined to comment. As expected, the driver also refused to confirm any commissions he received from 409 Collision Centre after bringing Doe’s car to the repair shop.

According to the City of Toronto, tow truck owners can “essentially charge whatever they like” so long as they complete the Schedule of Rates, which lists the maximum rates, and submit it to the Municipal Licensing & Standards. 

However, the City also mandated that “Tow truck owners are required to advise their client what they will be charged, and both parties agree and sign the consent form before the vehicle is towed.”

Doe said he had indeed signed a consent form before the tow truck driver brought his car to the reporting centre. 

According to the truck driver, the fees were made explicitly clear to Doe before he signed. The truck driver said that he charged Doe the 2021 standard Accident Tow rate of C$261.38 + HST, but Traffic Services has not updated its documents to reflect this change, and TPS has not responded to INN24 to verify the amount. 

However, Doe claimed the tow truck driver was not upfront about the fees. “He said I will not be charged at all, and he just needed my signature,” Doe said. 

Hodge acknowledged that Doe “was induced to sign the contract, but he should’ve taken more time to talk to the insurance company first.” 

According to Hodge, when Doe signed the paperwork, he entered a contractual agreement, a matter that goes beyond police jurisdiction and would have to be challenged in court.

“Once you engage in a contract, no matter how unfair or how unhappy you may be, it’s hard for the police to intervene,” Hodge said. “Unless someone blatantly robbed you or coerced you through physical violence.”

“The towing and storage of vehicles is a civil contract between the service provider and the person who owns the vehicle,” Toronto Police Service (TPS)’ Media Relations Officer Caroline de Kloet told INN24 in an email statement. “If there is an invoice to be paid, it is between the consumer and the business entity.”

North Collision Reporting Centre located at 113 Toryork Drive, North York (PHOTO: Courtesy of CBC News)

 

Truck driver denied all the car owner’s allegations

Taking the tow truck driver for his words, Doe permitted him to tow his car and then called his insurance company while they were en route to North York.

His insurance company told him that he was under third-party insurance, which only protects the first party — in this case, Doe — against any claims by the third party. However, “The first party is responsible for their damages or losses, regardless of the cause of those damages,” according to Investopedia

Sure enough, Doe’s insurance company informed him that any towing fees would come out of his own pocket. Knowing this, Doe told the truck driver that he only wanted him to tow his vehicle to the reporting centre and would pay him for his services up to that point.

“I do not require assistance from you. I will get my car repaired from my own mechanic,” Doe told the tow truck driver.

Doe alleged that the driver was adamant about helping Doe with the entire process and told him “do not listen” to the insurance companies.

“I am here to help you; this is my job,” the tow truck driver said, according to Doe. The driver once again emphasized, “Don’t worry, you have to pay nothing.”

When INN24 asked the truck driver if he made repeated offers of free services, he said he did not say such things to Doe. The driver also claimed that he was not aware that Doe was speaking to his insurance company on the phone.

“If he was not at fault, he should have been covered,” the driver said about Doe’s third-party insurance coverage. 

After the pair arrived at the reporting centre and completed the paperwork, Doe told the truck driver that he could leave and that he would take his car home on his own. The driver, however, remained and tried to dissuade him from doing so, claiming that the authorities would pull him over because of the dent.

According to Doe, the tow truck driver claimed that his car’s exhaust would emit “dangerous air” that would cause “eye damage.” The Consumer Protection Act forbids falsifying information to secure business. The driver denied making such claims to Doe. 

Based on Doe’s account, the tow truck driver then insisted that Doe take his car to 409 Collision Centre in Etobicoke for repairs, while he would supply him with a free rental car in the interim. 

With the repeated assurance that services were complimentary, Doe eventually conceded and let the tow truck driver take him to the Etobicoke facility.

409 Collision Centre located at 147 Belfield Road, Etobicoke (PHOTO: Courtesy of Canada247)

From the chaser’s perspective

The tow truck driver once again contradicted the car owner’s account. He said he “absolutely did not” claim the amenities were free, nor did he tell Doe to disregard his insurance company’s advice. The driver claimed that he did not know the nature nor extent of Doe’s insurance coverage.

“I never want to see a customer pay,” he said. “But when you have one-way insurance, and you’re found at fault, that’s how it is.”

The tow truck driver told INN24 that he believes the public has a distorted perception of the towing industry. 

“I know we’re made out to look like the bad guys, but that’s not the case at all here,” he said.

The driver admitted that certain towing companies indeed swindle customers, but it is “unfair” that people tend to make sweeping generalizations about the entire industry. According to him, “It’s a couple of companies here and there, but people seem to think it’s everybody” in the towing industry who orchestrates scams.

“We’re all different people,” he said. “It’s very unfair that they paint us all with the same brush.”

 When asked whether his company deploys the same coercive measures tailing car owners, pushing for their consent the truck driver said it does not. He claimed he “could not speak on” what the “other” fraudulent companies do.  

CBC’s Marketplace investigation offered a sympathetic account of the chasers and their motives. Many interviewed truck drivers expressed that they were merely trying to make ends meet. To many chasers, towing frauds are their livelihood. 

“Yes, I wanted to tow [the car involved in the] accident. I have two kids. I have a property tax to pay,” a truck driver said.

“They started blackmailing me.”

Doe said that when he reached 409 Collision Centre, the supposed tow truck manager who went by “Taaj” approached him. He was immediately affable towards him, telling Doe that he could park his car at the Etobicoke garage for the remainder of the long weekend. 

According to Doe, Taaj said the repair shop would not charge him for parking until after Family Day, starting on February 16.  

“He spoke to me in confidence and talked to me in my mother tongue, telling me, “Don’t worry, we do not charge anything,”” Doe said.

Taaj did not respond to INN24’s requests for a statement.

Hodge speculated that Taaj exploited Doe’s vulnerable position as a new immigrant, while also parlaying their mutual language to establish trust with his target. 

“No matter where you are in the world new immigrant or not if you see somebody who looks and speaks like you, you’re going to have a propensity to trust them,” Hodge said.

Doe claimed that Taaj also offered a rental car, a 2020 Mazda, free of charge. When the collision centre’s staff asked Doe for his credit card, Doe asked the employee if the rental car was actually free. 

The worker told him no: “This is like any other business.”

Armed with this knowledge, Doe instructed Taaj to return his vehicle to him because his car was still driveable and thought it needless to pay for storage. Taaj, however, echoed the truck driver’s words and told Doe that the police would penalize him for driving a dented car, according to Doe.

Taaj insisted yet again that the parking would be on the house. Doe eventually agreed.

The supposed tow truck manager, Taaj, allegedly claimed all storage at the repair shop was complimentary (PHOTO: Courtesy of 409 Collision Centre)

Before he left 409 Collision Centre to return to East York, Taaj also told Doe that they were willing to be “false witnesses” to his car accident.

 “Whatever I say, they will speak in my favour to the insurance company and help me not be at fault,” Doe said. “I declined the offer on the spot because it was against my conscience and beliefs.”

That Tuesday after the long weekend, on February 16, Doe’s insurance company ruled that he was at fault for the car accident due to an improper lane change on the part of Doe. 

“It should have been 50-50 responsibility, but the insurance company ruled it was my 100% fault,” he said. The insurance company’s decision meant that Doe would have to pay for all the towing and repair expenses. 

Doe then contacted Taaj, hoping to retrieve his car as promised. But he did not pick up the call. Taaj instead sent Doe a curt text message, telling him to reach out to the tow truck driver instead. The driver similarly did not answer and redirected Doe to 409 Collision Centre.

“When I called the office, they started blackmailing me,” Doe said. “They said to get the car fixed from them else they will charge towing and storage.”

Doe rushed to the auto repair shop, where he was accosted by “new faces” he did not see on Friday. 

The employee presented him with a bill of C$871.66, including C$360 for six days of storage and C$411.38 for towing the car from the collision scene to the North York reporting centre and then again to the Etobicoke garage.

Doe told the workers that he was offered free services, but they insisted on the payment. “They said, “No, this is your choice,”” Doe said. He then called 911.

INN24 provided the TPS with the date and location of Doe’s call, but they could not find it.

409 Collision Centre allegedly ran up the car owner’s bill, despite promises that the services would be free. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Handout)

Car owner suspects police collusion in towing fraud

Two TPS officers arrived at the auto repair shop within ten minutes, Doe recalled. He said that the officers would not allow him to speak and were addressing him in an “aggressive” way. 

“He told me I have to pay,” he said. “They told me 409 Collision is a legitimate business, and they have the right to charge you for the services they provide.”

Doe told the officers that the workers had lied to him about their services.  

“Every day, accidents happen on the road, and they bring innocent people to their collision centres to park their car forcefully,” he said to the police. 

When the officers “took their side,” Doe realized that the two TPS officers dealt with such situations “habitually.” He believed that the police knew in advance how to respond to customers like Doe, and were therefore speaking to him in a “harsh” and “threatening” manner. 

At that point, Doe was determined to collect his vehicle and leave 409 Collision Centre. According to Doe, one of the officers told him that he was not permitted to drive his car. The officer said that he must get his vehicle towed and personally recommended a service for C$300.

Ultimately, Doe refused and found another towing service online, which cost him another C$150. He paid the bill and left 409 Collision Centre, he said. 

Doe told INN24 that he believes the authorities are enabling if not collaborating with tow truck companies to extort victims. He said that the officers were friendly with the 409 Collision Centre’s personnel, comfortably roaming through the repair shop as if it was “their own office.”

“They were talking to the staff, laughing, smiling,” Doe said. “They were moving from room to room like it as their facility.”

De Kloet said that the TPS could not comment on the incident. The management at 409 Collision Centre could not be reached for a statement.

“Hiding in plain sight”

Doe discerned that the garage employees behaved like friends with the two TPS officers and believed that the two parties were conspiring “in a coordinated way,” which he did not anticipate in this new city he now considered home.   

“I did not expect this from Toronto,” Doe said. ”I thought I lived in a well-governed city where the rule of law is always there to protect me.”

If Doe’s allegations are true, the two police officers involved in his case would not be the first TPS accomplices to towing scams in the city.  

On February 19, the TPS announced it re-arrested Constable Ronald Joseph, who was accused of contributing to an organized towing scheme, during which suspects made faulty insurance claims for staged collisions from April 2018 to May 2020.  

Joseph, first arrested on June 15, 2020, was charged with four counts of fraud over C$5,000, among seven other charges. 

“It is alleged that the suspects carried out fraudulent insurance claims for false or staged collisions,” according to the press release. “The fake collisions would then be reported to fraudulently claim on insurance for money.” 

Joseph has been suspended from duty with pay since his initial arrest. The TPS will be continuing the investigation in anti-corruption and towing frauds. 

Doe’s suspicions are therefore not at all outlandish, according to INN24’s legal consultant.

“The towing industry has fallen so far under the radar because, at times, they work closely with the police,” Hodge said. “It’s given them a blanket of protection to hide in plain sight.” 

How to protect yourself from tow truck scams

Car accidents are scary and harrowing, but it is all the more imperative to remain calm in the aftermath of a collision.  

Hodge said that exchanging contact information with the other car owner is always the first step, “No matter how minor the incident.” 

INN Fact: What to do in a car accident
  • Remain calm and do not leave the scene of the accident
  • Gather information of other driver (name, license plate number, the insurance company, policy number)
  • Take pictures of the scene
  • Call 911 in the event of an injury or serious collision
  • Move vehicle if obstructing traffic 
  • Call insurance company for coverage information and next steps
  • Ask the insurance company for recommended tow and repair services
  • File accident report at a collision centre
  • Limit discussion on accident, including apologies discuss with the insurance company or police only

 

(Courtesy of Mel Hodge and Co-operators)

Next, contact the authorities whether the accident is severe or not. “Always contact the police first because, depending on the nature of the accident, they might send a car over to direct traffic,” Hodge said.  

The authorities would also deal with any safety hazards sometimes enlisting the fire department such as any debris or leaked fluids. 

Then call the insurance company immediately because it will provide all the niceties of the coverage and next steps. “Find out what’s exactly covered and what’s not,” Hodge said. “Your insurance company will also have a Rolodex of trusted companies for car rentals and repairs.” 

Similarly, even fender benders should be reported to a collision centre. If the crash occurred on commercial property such as a gas station Hodge also suggested acquiring the security camera footage for material proof of how the crash occurred.

The Government of Ontario also recommends that drivers stay informed and know their rights to circumvent tow truck and storage scams. 

If a suspected chaser makes a proposition, car owners are advised to check the tow truck for a municipal license number, and discern if the truck is from a reputable company, such as a roadside assistance company or automobile association.

INN Fact: How to avoid tow truck scams
  • Look for truck’s municipal licence number, check affiliated company
  • Listen for “obvious clues:” does the truck driver recommend a garage without being asked?
  • Ask the truck driver if they receive a referral fee they are legally required to tell you 
  • Read any and all documents thoroughly before signing 
  • Fact check online or with insurance if you’re unsure
  • Know your rights, including the right to say “No”

Car owners should also scrutinize for “obvious clues:” if the tow truck operator recommends a particular repair shop without being asked, “this might be an indication that a referral fee arrangement exists,” according to the province.

If the tow truck driver requests a signature, the driver should always read the document’s fine print carefully and do not panic, even if they are aggressive. Under the Consumer Protection Act, subjecting a customer to “undue pressure” to enter a transaction is considered “Unfair Practice.”

Finally, car owners can always reserve the right to say no to a chaser’s advances. “You have the option to choose where to have your vehicle towed to for repairs,” according to Financial Services. The Ontario government recommends contacting insurance companies directly for legitimate towing services and repair facilities.

Disillusioned with the police’s capacity to defend citizens against tow truck trickery, Doe said, “It is only me and myself who can protect me.” 

He has reached out to his local Councillor Jaye Robinson of Ward 15 – Don Valley West, who said she will address the issue at the next meeting. 

Doe plans to pursue legal action against the suspected defrauders.

“I’ve learned from this, but the message should be spread at a wide level so other people can see the faces of these crooks,” he said. 

You can read the Consumer Protection Act in full on the Ontario government’s website here. 

Have you or someone you know been targeted in a tow truck scam? Share your story with INN24 by contacting Vicki A. Lee at vicki.l@inn24.ca.

Wiki Production Code: A0653

2 Responses

  1. Hi Vicki A. Lee,
    thanks for wirtting in detail about tow truck scame, they belive that it’s legitimate to tell so many lies just to make the business, they believe that it’s legitimate to be false victim so that car owner win the situation and they get the chance to repair the car, and at that point they become so cruel to charge to isurance company higher than actual price of the car itself.

    If insrurance companies are putting so high to much premium, but tow trucks compnays are at above them to give them losses.

    Regards,

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Abdul. I agree, it’s important to get the truth of these scams out to unsuspecting local drivers and hopefully raise enough awareness for elected officials and government bodies to intervene. Thank you for reading and taking the time to offer your thoughts!

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