City Attorney David Chiu announced today that the city has initiated debarment proceedings against Auto Towing, a towing service in Hunters Point.
The action comes after months of alleged illegal activity from Auto Towing, which entailed allegedly targeting the cars of individuals that Chiu described as “vulnerable,” given that the victims were primarily Spanish- and Cantonese-speaking residents.
Debarment is an administrative procedure that authorizes the city to ban contractors from applying for, or receiving, city contracts for up to five years.
Potential consequences that loom over Auto Towing’s future contracts with the city are due to allegations of “repeatedly illegally towing vehicles and trespassing on private property to install a fraudulent sign.” Auto Towing does not presently hold any city contracts, but did bid on one earlier this year.
The City Attorney’s Office claims that Auto Towing installed fraudulent signs in the Bank of the West parking lot that sits at 2675 San Bruno Ave., and proceeding to illegally tow at least six cars from the lot.
The signs, which vaguely warned that all vehicles are subject to towing, were allegedly installed without a written contract with the property owner, as required by its permit, and without any form of consent by the property owner to do so.
Today’s filing includes victims’ statements to the police, with descriptions of “feeling defrauded and intimidated.” Witnesses also confirmed with the Bank of the West branch manager that the bank did not authorize the towing service to enter its lot and haul away people’s cars.
The law, intuitively, requires property owners’ consent before towing a vehicle from private property.
“Having a car unjustly towed is a nightmare for any driver,” said Chiu. “Auto Towing intentionally misled and scammed vulnerable people out of hundreds of dollars. Our city has no interest in contracting with exploitative businesses engaged in illegal conduct.”
The debarment filing includes details that could implicate Auto Towing for selectively profiling the victims of their illegal activity. Besides mentioning that many of them did not speak English as their primary language, it focuses on the fact that individuals with disabilities were also subjected to illegal towing, despite the clearly visible placards on their dashboards.
It states that the Board of Supervisors “specifically found a risk to public health and safety when vehicles of senior citizens and persons with disabilities are illegally towed from private property.”
The filing proceeds to mention other questionable actions by the company, such as telling victims that they could only retrieve their towed cars via cash payment, a standard that directly contradicts the conditions of the California Vehicle Code; it states that vehicle owners “have the right to pay with cash or major credit card.”
Additionally, Auto Towing allegedly towed vehicles to a different location than listed on its permit, and told vehicle owners that they could not retrieve their cars over the weekend.
The debarment filing also included the experiences of several witnesses who paid their towing fees to Auto Towing LLC, despite the fact that their cars were towed to a different location: The Specialty Towing office at 2045 Oakdale Ave. SFPD Tow Desk confirmed for one of the witnesses that Auto Towing LLC was still responsible for the tow, even though the person’s car was directed to a different towing yard and office.
“They have to be doing business at the place that they are permitted for. The physical location that they are permitted at is not where the cars are being taken,” said Jen Kwart, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office.
The involvement of Specialty Towing in the debarment filing is a curious one. The filing mentions an incident on May 18, in which witnesses saw two separate tow trucks attempt to tow two different cars. One of the trucks belonged to Specialty Towing, the other to Auto Towing.
The witness said that the drivers claimed they were summoned by the bank to tow the vehicles. The witness proceeded to photograph the trucks, and upon her doing so, the trucks immediately vacated the premises.
“The actions described below are predatory towing, a practice the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has recognized as having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations,” the filing states.
Yelp reviews on Auto Towing’s page raise more concern regarding the company practices; one user claims that their personal belongings are being held illegally, for a “ridiculous ransom.” Another angry reviewer referred to the company as “car pirates” who are “not following SFPD fee structure.”
Auto Towing did not respond to requests for comment, stating that all queries could be directed to their lawyer, whose contact information they refused to provide.