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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?
As a result of numerous complaints about predatory towing practices, Arlington passed towing restrictions which required business owners to sign off on each tow.
The ordinance met resistance from some in the business community who felt the “second signature” requirement was unduly burdensome.
Unfortunately, managers of business, often restaurants, tell those towed they have no power over the decision. So what is a person to do as they stand in the parking lot with no car but a receipt from the business in hand? It is no wonder they often lash out at the Advanced Towing attendant like one ESPN reporter did.
There is little recourse for the person other to pay the $135 to get their car back. Most do not have the time or the resources to even attempt to get their money back, something Advanced knows. Even if they wanted to bring a small claims court action against the towing company or the business who owns the parking lot, the process seems daunting to most.
If business owners refuse to be held accountable and the towing company refuses to be held accountable, then who is to blame when the towing company gets it wrong? That is the question the Arlington County Board tried to answer with its new ordinance.
The coalition opposed to Arlington’s ordinance went to the General Assembly to overturn the County Board’s decision. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) initially rejected the legislation, but eventually signed it into law.
After hearing about another victim of Advanced Towing last week, I did another online search on the company. What did I find?
According to this NBC 4 report, the company made a $1,500 contribution to state Sen. Barbara Favola (D) to encourage her to meet with Gov. McAuliffe and share the “pros and cons” of legislation after she initially opposed it.
The contribution was made April 13. The meeting with the governor took place April 24. It was part of what was called “a full-court press by Democratic senators and the business community that convinced the governor to back the bill.”
Favola and McAuliffe eventually sided with Advanced Towing and the business owners who did not want to be hassled with signing off on each tow.
Arlington’s towing ordinance may not have been the perfect solution. To be sure, businesses have a right to ensure their parking lots are used by their customers. But Advanced has towed people who were lawfully parked and may continue to do so without fear of any meaningful repercussions.
Above the objection of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and numerous local business owners, the Arlington County Board on Tuesday approved a series of changes to its towing ordinance, including a controversial provision requiring businesses to authorize individual tows.
The so-called “real time authorization” provision was approved with a delayed implementation date: July 1, 2017. That will give the County Manager time to “identify alternative strategies to mitigate aggressive towing practices and provide an interim report,” according to a county press release.
The provision, which was not recommended by the County Manager nor the county’s Trespass Towing Advisory Board, requires “real time authorization for all tows from commercial property conducted during business hours.” Currently, businesses can grant blanket pre-authorization to towing companies to tow any vehicle trespassing on their lots.
Other provisions approved unanimously by the County Board include:
- “Require tow truck drivers to photograph the vehicle at all four corners, providing vehicle owners with important safeguards should their vehicle be damaged, and providing towers with protection against false damage claims.”
- “Requiring that the receipt given to the vehicle owner include a disclosure that photos and/or video evidence taken before the tow are available upon request and the contact information for the County office that handles trespass towing complaints.”
- “Requiring towing and recovery operators to properly secure all loads to meet all safety standards.”
- “A new requirement for signage/markings on the interior of parking lots or facilities to provide additional, clear information to vehicle owners about the parking restrictions on the property. This requirement builds upon the existing requirement for signs at all vehicle entrances.”
- “Extend the eligible area for the location of storage facilities from three miles to three and one-quarter miles. This could allow more eligible locations for storage facilities, giving property owners more contractors to choose from without burdening vehicle owners in retrieving their vehicles.”
“These amendments provide important protections to vehicle owners whose vehicles are taken without their consent,” County Board Vice Chair Jay Fisette said in a statement. “We believe these reasonable requirements support the rights of Arlington County property owners and their tenants to enforce restrictions on their property while providing common sense standards for how vehicles are removed.”
The Board also authorized two additional towing fees: $25 for towing a vehicle in the evening (7 p.m.-8 a.m.) and $25 for towing a vehicle on a weekend or holiday. The changes were required by state code. Together, the fees could increase the initial charge for a tow (not including storage fees) to as high as $185.
Another provision prohibits towing companies from towing public safety vehicles, except at the direction of police.
The first speaker was Florence Fee, who complained about alleged predatory towing practices. She described an occasion in which she was going to the doctor for a prescription and blood test and, due to a lack of available parking at the hospital, she parked at a parking lot for a small shopping center nearby.
“I was gone about 15-20 minutes, came back out to the parking lot, walked outside and had a very surreal moment because my car was completely gone and I had to stop for a minute and recall if I actually did drive into the parking lot,” she said. “There was a sign but it was maybe 1×2 feet, not a large sign. I walked into one of the small shops and the clerks there said to me they saw exactly what had happened. The towers were hiding behind bushes, they saw me coming in, watched where I walked to and when I walked to the Kaiser medical facility instead of the shops, they immediately towed my car. I want to stress I was gone 15-20 minutes and I was at a medical facility.”
Also making an appearance was a man named Matt, who has published a website devoted to making a case against Advanced Towing, which he says damaged his Jeep during a tow. Matt said argued that the only complaints taken into account by the advisory board were the official ones sent into Arlington County, compared to the dozens of complaints on websites like Yelp, where Advanced Towing currently has a 1-star rating from 114 reviews.
The advisory board is currently seeking public comment on the county’s towing ordinance, through Aug. 15. Comments received will be considered at the board’s Sept. 15 meeting.
Voting members of the advisory board include an Arlington resident and several members of the police department and owners of towing companies.
The State and Local Predatory Towing Enforcement Act introduced by congressmen Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was added to an existing transportation bill as an amendment on Wednesday morning.
As it stands, federal law limits the ability of state and local governments to regulate the towing industry. The bill-turned-amendment would give them the ability to do so in an attempt to prevent predatory towing.
“State and local governments provide the best authority to regulate the towing industry and protect Virginians from unfair, predatory practices,” Rep. Beyer said in a press release. “We need more common-sense, consumer friendly solutions like this amendment to protect our constituents’ wallets.”
The predatory towing debate isn’t new to Arlington. The issue received national attention this past spring when ESPN sportscaster and WJLA alumna Britt McHenry was caught on camera losing her temper at an employee at Ballston-based Advanced Towing.
Shortly after the video of the incident was published online, Beyer’s bill was first introduced to the House.
In May, County Board Member Jay Fisette told ARLnow that under the legislation, he would support giving a towing veto to local businesses, requiring the owner’s approval before a vehicle is removed from their property.
The legislation Beyer’s bill would be amending, called the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act or STRR Act, is expected to pass in the House of Representatives by the end of the week, according to the Congressman’s office.
The bill is nearly 600 pages long and would authorize more than $300 billion for transportation across the country. Specific plans for the funds include improving infrastructure, highway safety programs and public transportation.
According to The Hill, Beyer’s and Hollen’s amendment is one of nearly 300 up for debate by the House before voting on the STRR Act.
Congressmen Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) today reintroduced The State and Local Predatory Towing Enforcement Act, a bill they say would solidify state and local governments’ ability to end predatory towing practices.
As federal law currently stands, state and local governments are prohibited from regulating local towing industries. Though a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision is considered to have given local governments the ability to regulate those industries, the reintroduced bill would codify it and reduce some legal uncertainties.
An identical bill was introduced by former Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), but died in the U.S. House of Representatives in February.
“Unfair and predatory towing practices take money out of our constituents’ wallets and strain their budgets,” said Rep. Beyer in a press release. “I am proud to join Rep. Van Hollen to provide our state and local governments with the authority they need to properly regulate this industry with common sense, consumer friendly towing protections.”
The predatory towing debate in Arlington has been revived as of late thanks to the national coverage of ESPN sportscaster Britt McHenry’s caught-on-camera rant against Ballston-based Advanced Towing. Despite the opportune timing, Beyer’s office says the high-profile incident did not have any impact on the congressman’s decision to introduce the bill.
Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette has kept his eye on local predatory towing practices since 1999.
“Predatory towing is something I’ve thought about a lot,” Fisette says. “Next to cable, this has been the second-highest number of complaints [by residents].”
Fisette, who supports the bill, sees it as a way to help reinforce local governments’ ability to regulate predatory towing. “It’s always nice to have it in black and white where no one can challenge it,” he says.
For instance, Fisette says he’d like to give a towing veto to local businesses. “Have the property owner sign off on the tow before the tow company is allowed to remove the vehicle,” he says.
The end goal is to give drivers the confidence to park without fear of being towed at a moment’s notice.
“I try to create a community where people are able to park one time and go do five things,” Fisette says. “Walk to one store, walk to another, then go back to their car. I don’t want them moving five spaces down. It creates community, reduces congestion, and cuts down on pollution.”
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Around 2000, I sat down to eat in the now-closed Taco Bell on Wilson Boulevard. A few minutes later, one of my fellow patrons sprinted out of the restaurant as his car was being hoisted into the air by a tow truck. Later we learned an “unmarked spotter” had identified his car for towing because he had first walked to the ATM next door to get cash before ordering his Taco Bell dinner.
The car owner showed the tow truck driver his Taco Bell receipt, but was told it did not matter because he had left the premises. Once the tow truck was called, the driver explained, it was his job was to tow the car. So, the car owner stood directly in front of the tow truck refusing to move for more than 15 minutes until the tow truck eventually dropped the car and left.
Needless to say, reports of “predatory towing” are not a new problem in Arlington. But, with social media and some cases recently going viral, the practices have been thrust into the spotlight. Almost certainly, today a video of the car owner standing defiantly in front of the tow truck at Taco Bell would have been posted to YouTube or Facebook and retweeted on Twitter.
Enter County Board Member Jay Fisette, who this week said he would look at changes to these towing practices. Specifically, he said it may be in order to have the property owner sign off on each tow.
While towing companies will oppose any changes to the regulations that impact their business model, Fisette’s approach is worthy of consideration. It protects a private property owner’s unquestioned rights to control their parking spaces while ensuring that same property owner cannot simply blame a tow on a third party spotter who gets it wrong.
As Fisette noted, it is not in a retail property owner’s best interest to get it wrong when it comes to towing. There is a good chance the car owner never went back to that Taco Bell after the parking incident. Why patronize a business that appears to care more about its parking spaces than its customers?
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
It took less than a minute, according to the witness who snapped the photo, above, last week.
An SUV with a Jimmy John’s delivery sign on the top pulls into the private parking area of an Arlington office building around noon. The delivery guy quickly makes his way to the lobby, dropping off a sandwich for a hungry cubicle dweller and hoping for a buck or two in return as a tip.
During the brief moments the delivery guy is inside, a tow truck from Ballston-based Advanced Towing swoops in, hooks the rear tires of the SUV and begins to drive off. The delivery guy is able to flag down the tow driver at the last second and pay the $25 “drop fee,” thus avoiding the $135 it would have cost to get his SUV back had it been impounded.
The witness is sympathetic to the delivery driver — “I worked in that industry in college and its already
hard enough to make money off tips” — and seems to think that this is an instance of a private towing company going rogue. It’s not. According to an Advanced employee, it’s legal and actually fairly common.
“In Arlington… we probably tow a delivery vehicle from just about every major food delivery business in the area at some point in time,” Paul Anderson, an administrative employee for Advanced Towing, told ARLnow.com. “There is no exemption for delivery vehicles… unless property owners ask for those to be exempted.”
In other words, if you park without authorization on private property — even if you’re delivering food, you leave your flashers on, go inside for just a few seconds, etc. — you can be towed. That is, unless the building owner specifically asks for an exemption.
Anderson said Advanced only “occasionally” gets complaints about towing delivery drivers. When they do, an employee explains ” that they were parked in an area they were not allowed to [park].”
So why would an office building owner want the poor fellow delivering sandwiches, pizza or Chinese food to one of the building’s occupants to be towed? Sometimes, Anderson said, it comes down to security — it wouldn’t be hard for someone with nefarious intentions to put a fake delivery sign on the roof of their car.
“Especially commercial buildings with government agencies, sometimes it’s a security issue,” he said. Given the number of government buildings in Arlington County, Anderson said Advanced has had meetings with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security to discuss that very issue.
The Board approved the motion on a 2-1 vote, with Board Chair Jay Fisette and Libby Garvey voting to approve and Walter Tejada voting against the motion. Board Member Mary Hynes had left the meeting earlier with an illness.
The fee increases from $125 — where it had been raised to from $115 in 2011 — to $135, which is the state maximum. As part of the state towing law, Arlington can enact higher towing fees, based on market rates, if they conduct a thorough study, which the Board has instructed county staff to do.
The ordinance also puts in place more stringent requirements for towing companies to document the vehicle’s location, reason for removal and condition before it’s towed, including taking pictures or videos.
Advanced Towing owner John O’Neill said the fee increase was necessary because Arlington is more costly to operate in than nearby jurisdictions. Advanced Towing is one of three towing companies with storage facilities in Arlington, according to Brian Stout, the county’s liaison to the Trespass Towing Advisory Board.
“It is more expensive to operate our business in Arlington than any other location in Virginia,” O’Neill told the Board. “We are close to the point of no return with regards to sustaining an Arlington-based towing firm.”
Tejada asked Stout if companies were required to give car owners information about filing a complaint and their right to inspect their vehicle before paying to get it out of the lot. The ordinance requires the towing company to post signs telling owners their rights, but does not require giving owners a pamphlet or some sort, Stout said. O’Neill said the sign is “the first thing you see” in his lot at 4000 5th Road N. in Ballston.
“I have information that’s not what the case is from residents who have complained to me about having been towed,” Tejada told O’Neill. “There is some predatory towing that’s still happening. I cannot support the motion because there are people who are still being victims of predatory towing, some of whom are low income who don’t even know they have a right to complain. I will cast a vote of ‘no’ on their behalf.”
A majority of the surrounding jurisdictions already have towing fees comparable to Arlington’s new structure, and some have additional penalties up to $50 for nights, weekends and holidays.
The county enacted its towing ordinance years ago after a long history of predatory towing. Fisette, the longest-tenured current Board member, was a part of drafting the original ordinance.
“When I joined the Board, we had tons and tons of complaints about the tow industry, and we had no regulatory authority,” he said. “Having gotten involved, I’ve always recognized that the industry is a need. We’re a compact, busy place with parking issues… The recommendation strengthen the requirements on the towing company. This isn’t only about raising the base fee, it’s balancing it out with becoming more clear on some of the rights of those who own the vehicles.”
The political blog Blue Virginia points out that a $2,500 donation to County Board member Barbara Favola’s state Senate campaign from Advanced Towing owner John O’Neill, reported here last week, came just five days before a Board vote on increasing the county’s towing fee.
On April 26, the Board voted 3-2 to increase the trespass towing fee — collected by companies like Advanced Towing — from $115 to $125. Favola was one of the three to vote in favor of the fee increase.
“I do believe towing services are a necessary part of urban living,” she said at the time. “I feel that I also have to be fair to the towing operators.”
While the vote’s timing raises questions, it is consistent with the last vote Favola cast on towing. On May 16, 2009, she voted to increase the towing fee by $15.
Update at 1:10 p.m. — Favola’s Democratic primary opponent, Jaime Areizaga-Soto, has released a statement that renews his call for Favola to resign from the Board.
Barbara Favola has violated the Arlington County Code of Ethics. It is time for Barbara Favola to resign from the County Board and quit using her public position for political gain, this is the worst of politics and shows disrespect for the values that Democrats believe in and fight for.
Just in case you’re not sick of towing stories yet, here’s one we happened to catch while checking out the new Michael Landrum seafood restaurant (update: lots of people coming and going from the brown-papered doors, but still no returned calls from Landrum).
Across the street from the new restaurant, an Advanced tow truck and a guy in a Mercedes were locked in a towing stalemate in the parking lot of the shopping center that houses Ray’s Hell Burger. In one corner, the tow truck and its crew of two had the Mercedes in its steely grips. In the other corner, the Mercedes driver was laying on the horn and refusing to get out of the car.
Ten minutes into the struggle, an Arlington police officer showed up and mediated. After some discussion, he allowed the tow truck to haul the Benz off to the Advanced impound lot.
The driver, who would only give his first name of Abe, was left fuming.
“Now I have to find a way to get to my bank to get cash, to get to the lot to have my car returned, then I would probably have to take a day off to go to court to sue them if I want justice,” Abe said. “They’re crooks because the car was not parked illegally and they’re getting away with it… we have no recourse, the police seem to be working against us, not with us.”
Abe explains that he was at the shopping center to drop off four boxes at a package center for a friend. He circled the crowded lot several times before deciding to park behind a couple of parked cars. He left a friend outside to make sure no one needed him to move his car.
Within two minutes, he said, the tow truck arrived. He somehow managed to get in his car while it was being hooked up, which prevented the towers from going anywhere, for safety reasons. The ten minute standoff then ensued, with the horn blaring, a small crowd watching and a number of people in parked cars blocked from leaving.
Abe says he wasn’t offered the chance to pay a drop fee (usually $25), but two witnesses we talked to told a different story. They said the driver was offered the chance to pay a drop fee, but started cursing and becoming belligerent instead, at which point the tow crew retreated to their truck and waited for police to arrive.
In a poll conducted yesterday, 55 percent of ARLnow.com readers said that the right of property owners to tow illegally-parked cars outweighs any need for more stringent predatory towing laws.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 cars are towed in Arlington each year, according to a three-part series on towing in the county by TBD’s Rebecca Cooper.
Of those thousands of tows every year, only about 50 result in formal complaints being filed with the police. And of those complaints, the cases where the towing company actually violated a county ordinance is in the single digits, according to an extrapolation of Cooper’s numbers.
When we last wrote about Arlington’s biggest tow company, Advanced Towing, a torrent of hate was unleashed in the comment section. But if such a large percentage of tows are legitimate, then are more stringent regulations necessary?
For the time being, county board chairman Jay Fisette tells TBD that he’s just focusing on reducing “predatory tows” in a number of towing “hot spots.” Is that enough?