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(Updated at 9:55 a.m.) Advanced Towing, long accused by critics of predatory towing, is being sued by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
The Commonwealth alleges that Advanced often unsafely tows vehicles, sometimes tows without legal authority, and in general exhibits conduct that is “frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal.”
“Advanced frequently tows vehicles quickly and carelessly in an effort to tow as many vehicles as possible,” the lawsuit said. “This predatory and overly aggressive behavior causes consumers to become irate and results in many phone calls to the local police department.”
One such irate customer was current Fox News personality Britt McHenry, who famously was caught on video berating an Advanced Towing employee after her car was towed from a restaurant parking lot in Clarendon.
The suit cites instances in which Advanced has towed food delivery vehicles and Amazon vans. It also alleges that on at least two occasions — in August 2019 and February 2020 — Advanced illegally towed Arlington County Police Department vehicles.
The suit discusses how the company has managed to become such a prolific tower of cars determined to be trespassing on the lots of local businesses. Advanced “has employed the use of ‘spotters,’ who are individuals (sometimes children or teenagers) who patrol a parking lot and contact Advanced’s drivers when they see a vehicle they believe is impermissibly parked,” the suit says.
The company operates a tow lot in Ballston, a frequent destination for Arlington police responding to towing disputes. Such disputes led an Uber driver to allegedly strike Advanced owner John O’Neill with his car in January. Another towing dispute, at a Crystal City gas station, led to a stabbing in 2018.
Advanced Towing has even made political headlines.
“Incumbent candidate Barbara Favola was recently criticized by challenger Nicole Merlene for allegedly helping to loosen state towing regulations after accepting combined contributions of $7,250 over previous years from Advanced Towing, with an additional $2,500 coming from company owner John O’Neill,” ARLnow reported last year.
Critics of Advanced Towing have, over the years, frequently emailed ARLnow with tales of alleged bad behavior and have given it a rare one-star review on Yelp. One even created a website with an exhaustive list of complaints about the company.
The lawsuit is “seeking restitution on behalf of consumers, civil penalties, attorneys’ fees, and asking the court to ban Advanced Towing from further violating the Virginia and Arlington County towing code provisions,” notes a press release (below).
Attorney General Mark R. Herring has filed a lawsuit against Advanced Towing Company, LLC, a towing and recovery operator based in Arlington, Virginia. The Complaint alleges that Advanced Towing has violated Virginia and Arlington County towing code provisions, resulting in towing conduct that is “frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal.”
“Virginia consumers should not have to worry about towing companies acting illegally or employing predatory, unsafe business practices,” said Attorney General Herring. “My team and I will continue to hold towing companies and bad actors accountable when they break the law and take advantage of consumers.”
The Complaint alleges that Advanced Towing has employed tow truck drivers who are not properly registered with the Commonwealth, implemented a practice of unsafely towing vehicles, towed vehicles without the proper legal authority, unlawfully towed police vehicles and commercial delivery vehicles like Amazon delivery vans, and failed to maintain appropriate contracts with property owners authorizing tows.
Attorney General Herring is seeking restitution on behalf of consumers, civil penalties, attorneys’ fees, and asking the court to ban Advanced Towing from further violating the Virginia and Arlington County towing code provisions.
(Updated at 8:25 a.m.) The driver of a car with Uber branding is in police custody after an incident at the Advanced Towing lot in Ballston.
Witnesses tell ARLnow that around 3 p.m. a man was trying to prevent the Uber vehicle from leaving the tow lot at 4000 5th Road N. when the driver gunned it, striking the man, another vehicle and a utility pole.
When a reporter arrived on scene, the alleged driver was being taken into custody by police a short distance away from the lot. The striking vehicle — a silver Kia with a cross on the hood — could be seen parked on 5th Road N. with a damaged front bumper and the passenger side of its front windshield shattered.
According to scanner traffic, the victim was bleeding from the face after being struck and was being transported to Virginia Hospital Center via ambulance. His injuries were described as non-life-threatening.
A towing company employee told ARLnow that the victim was Advanced Towing owner John O’Neill.
“All this over 135 bucks,” the employee said.
Police said Monday evening that a Fairfax man had been arrested and is facing multiple charges.
“At approximately 3:11 p.m. on January 13, police were dispatched to the report of a crash with injuries in the 4000 block of 5th Road N.,” said Arlington County Police spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “Upon arrival, it was determined that the suspect attempted to exit a tow lot as the employee was closing the gate. The suspect allegedly accelerated, struck the employee, a dumpster and light pole before fleeing the scene.”
“An officer located the suspect and took him into custody without incident,” Savage continued. “The employee was transported to an area hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Gigssa Bekele Bengessa, 27, of Fairfax, VA was arrested and charged with Malicious Wounding, Destruction of Property and Defrauding a Garage Keeper. He was held on no bond. ”
Advanced Towing gained national notoriety in 2015 after video emerged of an ESPN reporter, whose car was towed, berating an Advanced employee. The company, which tows cars that are considered to be trespassing on private lots and then charges the vehicle’s owner a fee, faces frequent accusations of “predatory” towing.
Photos and reporting by Vernon Miles
Candidates running for the Virginia State Senate this year have raised hundreds of thousands along the campaign trail — but not from Arlington’s Advanced Towing.
None of the four candidates running for Richmond accepted money from the controversial towing company, according to the most recent campaign finance filings detailing fundraising between January 1 and March 31 as shared by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP).
Incumbent candidate Barbara Favola was recently criticized by challenger Nicole Merlene for allegedly helping to loosen state towing regulations after accepting combined contributions of $7,250 over previous years from Advanced Towing, with an additional $2,500 coming from company owner John O’Neill.
The April finance reports indicate that the incumbent did not accept contributions from Advanced Towing or O’Neill during this fundraising period.
All of Arlington’s candidates are scheduled to release another set of campaign finance reports on June 3.
Residents will head to the polls on June 11 to cast their vote in the primaries. Because all Senate candidates announced so far are Democrats, the primary vote will likely choose the winner of the November 5 general election as well.
Read below for more details about each candidate’s most recent campaign finances.
Sen. Adam Ebbin
Ebbin has worked in Richmond for the past 15 years — the last seven as a state senator and eight years before that as a state delegate. He told ARLnow that this year his biggest wins in the capitol include legislation on green energy programs and helping colleges offer technical and dual-enrollment options.
Ebbin is running for re-election unopposed in the Democratic primary and currently faces no challengers from any other party.
He started with $101,534 in campaign funds on January 1, according to VPAP’s campaign finance reports. After fundraising $26,190 and spending $12,522, Ebbin reportedly ended the first quarter with $115,201 in funds for the campaign trail.
Ebbin’s campaign accepted 70 contributions during the reported funding period, with the majority of them (37 donors) giving the campaign $100 or less.
His top donation came from Political Action Committee (PAC) Win Virginia ($5,000), which announced this year it was training and funding Democratic candidates to flip the statehouse blue.
John O’Neill, Advanced Towing’s owner, said he has received between 10 and 12 inquiries and new clients since the video leaked April 16, about double the company’s normal rate.
“New customer inquiries and acquisitions do increase when parking space poaching receives media notoriety,” he told ARLnow.com in an email. “Every new residential or commercial highrise being built in Arlington and surrounding areas engage towing services and there are a fair number of new projects being constructed. There are often more vehicles than available spaces in residential or multi-use settings causing parking to be an ongoing, popular topic.”
While Advanced Towing trucks may be getting busier, they won’t be towing cars away from the Hunan One Restaurant parking lot in Clarendon, at 3033 Wilson Blvd, where McHenry’s car was towed.
Hunan One General Manager Dale Jin told ARLnow.com yesterday that the restaurant’s building — a seven-story mixed-use structure with offices on top of ground floor retail — was recently sold to Carr Properties. When Carr Properties bought the building, it brought in Henry’s Wrecker Service to patrol the lot.
“We’re much happier now,” Jin said. “We complained for years about the towing company.”
O’Neill confirmed that Advanced no longer serves the lot, but said the change had “no connection whatsoever” with the McHenry incident
Hat tip to @6number6
Video of ESPN reporter and WJLA alumna Britt McHenry’s dealings with Advanced Towing after her car was towed from the Hunan One parking lot in Clarendon earlier this month has been leaked.
LiveLeak, an open-source video sharing platform, published the video today, which was promptly amplified by the sports site Deadspin. McHenry can be seen and heard berating the towing lot’s employee, insulting her education, teeth and weight. During the video, the employee warns McHenry “I’ll play your video, so be careful.”
On April 6, McHenry tweeted that she was towed from Hunan One’s parking lot. When we asked for clarification, she said she had been eating dinner at the restaurant and therefore was legally parked and, apparently, improperly towed. McHenry has since taken down her initial tweet.
With that story, we asked readers if tow companies were doing their job or preying on their customers. Of the 2,740 poll responses, 2,298 — 83.9 percent — answered “They’re mostly shady predators out to make a buck.”
After the video went viral on the Internet this afternoon, McHenry tweeted an apology.
“In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things,” she said. “As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”
In Britt McHenry’s defense, the advanced Towing people are the most revolting company. Cash only and they don’t make change.
— Tom Bridge (@tbridge) April 16, 2015
The thing is: they taunt you the whole time you’re there instead of just charging your card and letting you go.
— Tom Bridge (@tbridge) April 16, 2015
Have been towed 4x by Advanced Towing, all from my home lot where I have permit. They held car hostage, had no time to argue, paid $135 4x.
— Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) April 16, 2015
@971theticketxyt if you've ever seen Advanced Towing and the way they operate, you'd think Britt didn't go far enough.
— Kevin H. Watson (@Kevin_H_Watson) April 16, 2015
An ARLnow.com reporter went to Advanced Towing’s lot in Ballston this afternoon, and was given an email address to contact the owner. The owner has not yet responded to our inquiry.
Warning: Explicit language
The company’s drivers will watch over restricted parking spaces and wait for some unfortunate schmo to park there and walk off the owner’s property, at which point they snatch the car and drive off. They do this at the Four Mile Run branch of the Virginia DMV, at the Westmont Shopping Center on Columbia Pike, and elsewhere around Arlington. Needless to say, it has not won them many friends.
They have earned themselves a steady stream of hate on Yelp. They have been the subject of a not-safe-for-work screed by a prominent local blogger. And they’re often involved in disputes that have to be settled by police.
The dispute that led to the photo above happened last week when a driver thought his car was damaged by an Advanced tow truck. Police concluded that it was preexisting damage.
One day later, a man contacted TBD and ARLnow.com after his car was towed from the same private lot adjacent to the DMV. He accused Advanced of using a “decoy” to attract people to the spaces, then threatening him when he tried to warn others. “Aggressive towing, intimidation at Arlington DMV parking lot,” TBD’s headline read.
This all brings up the inevitable question: Is Advanced unethical? Are they preying on unsuspecting drivers without regard to circumstance? Or are they delivering justice to people who ignore no parking signs?
(Updated at 3:15 p.m.) Arlington officials are again looking to amend the county’s much-talked-about towing ordinance.
A number of the proposed changes would bring the county’s ordinance in line with Virginia law, which was recently updated. However, several may be met with public pushback, including increases in some towing fees.
Today (Tuesday), as part of its recessed meeting, the County Board will vote to advertise a public hearing in February on the changes, as proposed by the County Manager and Trespass Towing Advisory Board (TTAB).
The proposals include updating the definition of “immobilization,” reinforcing the ban on certain public safety vehicles from being towed, and more re-defining who is allowed to tow and when.
The definition of “immobilization” would mean anything “that does not damage the vehicle,” including booting and using barnacles, for which the towing operator can charge a $25 fee to remove. To bring county code in line with Virginia’s, it clarifies language specifying that police, fire, and public safety vehicles parked temporarily can not be towed.
TTAB also agrees that vehicle owners should be able to request information via email from towing operators, like photos and authorization contracts. An email address would must be provided by the towing operator.
Basic towing fee increases are being proposed, from $135 to $150, as well as an increase of the additional fees for night and/or weekend towing, from $25 to $30. That brings the maximum possible towing fee to $210, for a vehicle towed on a weekend night.
This accounts, according to the TTAB, for “rising labor costs and shortage of qualified commercial driver candidates.”
An additional fee change would lower the cost to pay a tow driver to release a vehicle, if the owner arrives before it’s towed.
“The County Manager recommends reducing the in lieu of towing, or ‘drop fee’ from $25 to $10,” a presentation on the changes notes.
Another change would be who is allowed to tow and when.
In April 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that contradicted a county law forcing local businesses to authorize each individual tow from their property (or “real-time authorization”).
Only months earlier, the Arlington County Board had voted to approve this real-time authorization as a means “to mitigate aggressive towing practices” — a recurring issue in Arlington. The County Board chair at the time, Jay Fisette, expressed disappointment at the governor’s decision. (McAuliffe is currently mounting another gubernatorial campaign.)
Now, the County Manager and TTAB are proposing to bring county code in line with the Commonwealth and to officially negate the 2016 county law. Using “language derived” from Virginia, the county is proposing that a written contract is enough authorization for towing operators to monitor and tow from private lots without real-time authorization.
Other changes are being proposed to the ordinance with the stated goal of consumer protection. Those include ensuring towing facilities are properly lit, towing placards are properly displayed, and requiring that towing signs “clearly state hours of the day, and days of the week, that towing is in effect.”
There’s a global-pandemic-slash-economic-crisis going on, but you know what apparently isn’t affected? Towing.
Just like death and taxes, being towed is inevitable if you park without a permit in a private lot patrolled by a towing company. Even now.
That hasn’t stopped some people from trying, though, with predictable results. One local resident contacted ARLnow to suggest that trespass towing presents unnecessary risks during this time.
I live in a condo association in South Arlington that has parking policies that during normal conditions ensures that there is enough parking spaces for its residents at night. The policy is in effect from 8PM to 8AM. Virginia is currently under stay-at-home orders. My neighbors are not having gatherings or parties. Parking spots are not taken to local traffic visiting bars and restaurants. There are adequate spaces for residents and their guests. The parking policy does not hold.
However, the condo association is upholding a parking policy. Since my car was towed because I had not shown the proper permit, I need to get an Uber to the towing company in Falls Church and I would need to interact with the towing company to pay for any fees. I am putting my health in jeopardy, along with every person that I interact with. All of these risks could have been avoided if my car was not towed in the first place. I am not sure if towing from a residential property constitutes as essential business.
Who is looking out for our community’s well being for nonessential business that might put us at risk? How do we uphold stay-at-home guidelines when businesses are operating as business as usual?
I suspect that my circumstance is not the only one. I am not confident that Alrington can lower its positive Coronavirus cases if we do not take social distancing seriously.
(ARLnow has received similar messages about the county’s parking enforcement: “I noticed all cars being ticketed on my street this morning… Might be a good article to publish / investigate given the federal government’s recommendation that people not leave their homes / condos.”)
Given the current public health emergency, do you think it would make sense to suspend all trespass towing on private lots — kind of like The Purge but for parking? Or should parking restrictions should continue to be enforced?
Police have charged 33-year-old Arlington resident Norman Mitchell Brawner, Jr. with malicious wounding in connection with the brawl last Thursday (May 10) at the Exxon station near the intersection of 23rd Street S. and Route 1. Police believe a man confronted Brawner as he began to tow his car, then a fight broke out between the pair that resulted in Brawner stabbing the man.
While Arlington police initially reported only that a federal law enforcement officer witnessed the confrontation, spokeswoman Ashley Savage now tells ARLnow that an FBI agent at the station intervened when he saw the two men start fighting.
“An FBI agent witnessed the incident and gave commands to cease the assault while displaying his firearm,” Savage wrote in an email. “The suspect left the scene and the tow company contacted police with the suspect’s location. The FBI agent remained on scene with the victim until police arrived.”
Savage says the victim was taken to a nearby hospital with “serious but non-life threatening injuries.” She would not confirm which towing company Brawner was working for, but WJLA reports that it was Advanced Towing — which has faced persistent allegations of predatory towing practices and which made national headlines in 2015 after video emerged of then-ESPN reporter Britt McHenry berating an Advanced employee.
The company’s owner, John O’Neill, did not respond to requests for comment on the incident, though signs at the Exxon alert drivers that anyone parking illegally will be towed by Advance Towing.
Brawner is set to appear in Arlington County General District Court on June 22 for a preliminary hearing.
Photo courtesy Arlington County Police Department