They're Practically Salivating

— Mark Ruford (not his real name) understands that the cab company he works for makes plenty of money off people stranded when their cars are towed at the beach. He drives them so often to pick up the cars that he cites from memory the $15.50 fare from the parking lot of Longs Drugs on Mission Bay Boulevard in Pacific Beach to Western Towing Company's yard on Pacific Highway.

The most dramatic scene takes place in the Belmont Park parking lot at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. "The flow is continuous, a regular assembly line," says Ruford, who sometimes cruises the lot as soon as the action starts. "You'll see five or six tow trucks driving into the lot and three or four driving out loaded. Drivers coming are very animated. Their bodies look tense, and they are craning their necks to see how many vehicles are there for the picking.

"When drivers get into the lot, they move quickly," according to Ruford. "You can tell they're hustling. They're practically salivating. They sometimes even set up before 3:00. Their trucks are already angled into position in front of the cars. Their chains are out, and they will be moving their equipment around. As soon as 3:00 a.m. comes, they hook the cars up and drive them away."

People whose cars are parked in the Belmont Park lot between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. are violating a posted private-property restriction. But parking in Mission Beach is so difficult to find that many people still try to park in the lot overnight. They soon find that Western Towing has towed their vehicle and, to retrieve each vehicle, they must pay a fee of $240, give or take, depending on times of day, days of week, and what equipment the company had to use.

Contrast this with the $40 fee (plus mileage) most towing companies charge -- including Western Towing -- to tow your car to a service station when you can't start it. There is a big difference, according to Western Towing's general manager Mick Malone, between private-property removals and consensual towing. "When you're there," he says, "you've got the keys. It's a straightforward situation. If you're talking about removing a vehicle when the keys aren't available, when timing is often crucial, the costs are double, triple, and even quadruple [the rate for consensual towing]."

Tow-truck drivers who can do the job safely and without damage to vehicles are in demand, Malone adds. They usually receive commissions for the tows they complete. "And our charges are within what's allowable by the state," he says. "We're not the highest, and we're not the lowest. The situation is market-fueled. At the beach, 95 percent of no-parking signs on properties are our signs. Everybody at the beach has cars towed. It's not the towing company's fault."

Scott Hardy runs a wireless Internet business out of his home in Mission Beach. He and other people, he says, used to leave their cars overnight in the Belmont Park lot. But since 2000, local businessman Tom Lochtefeld has had a lease with the City of San Diego to renovate the historic attraction. This past August, Lochtefeld opened the Wave House Bar across the street. That's when everything changed, and cars started disappearing in the middle of the night from the Belmont Park lot.

According to a June 26 Union-Tribune article by Terry Rodgers, Lochtefeld said, "A key to making the property profitable is fixing the parking shortage, which won't be easy." The article goes on to say that whenever "Lochtefeld has suggested converting all or a portion of the center's free parking to paid parking, he has met stiff resistance from business and community leaders. He has also suggested building a low-rise pay-to-park structure in partnership with the city."

In Hardy's view, "Since Lochtefeld can't convince either the Mission Beach town council or planning commission to put in paid parking, he is doing it the sneaky way -- in the middle of the night."

Both Hardy and his wife have had their cars towed from the Belmont Park parking lot after 3:00 a.m. Once he arrived a minute after 3:00 to remove his car only to find it already in the clutches of a tow truck. "I asked the driver how much I could pay him to drop my car and let me take it," he says. "He told me $62. I said, 'I'll have to run over to that ATM across the street to get $80' and pointed it out. On my way back, I noticed the driver was already starting to tow the car down Mission Bay Boulevard. But I flagged him down, and he finally dropped my car for $40.

"I go out real late to look at them towing the cars," says Hardy. "A Western Towing Company manager is sometimes out there waving tow trucks into the lot. Once, even though I stayed out of the parking lot on the sidewalk, a driver called the police on me. I told one driver who was about to tow a car shortly after 4:00 a.m. that it was too late and that he couldn't do it. The guy said, 'Watch me.' "

The thing that worries Hardy is that when the nearby bars close at 2:00 a.m., "Young guys coming out drunk will look at the signs in the parking lot and say, 'I can't leave my car here overnight' and drive away. It's a real drunk fest out there on Friday and Saturday nights. If people don't have places to leave their cars, they will become drunk drivers."

Cab driver Ruford can't understand why the charges for towing are so high. "It would take me 12 hours on a good day to make $240. The towing company makes it with one trip." The people he picks up whose cars have been towed are extremely irate -- or scared. "I had a college girl one night who was crying in the backseat all the way to the yard because she worried there wouldn't be enough funds on her credit card to retrieve her car."

If people cannot retrieve their cars on the day they are towed, the towing company adds an additional charge of $30 per day until they come and get it. After a month of the car sitting unclaimed, the company can auction it off. By that time, the bill is well over $1000. Ruford wonders whether the initial charge for towing, as well as the daily impound fees, are intended to make it so financially difficult for some people to get their cars back that they lose them to the auction. "Then the towing company makes a whole lot of money," he says.

Ruford has paid special attention to the way people's cars get towed at Longs Drugs. "I've noticed a 55- to 60-year-old Caucasian man slouching down in a sports car in the parking lot marking on a clipboard," he says. A Longs employee told him that people who park there but walk off the lot to another business are given 15 minutes until the tow truck gets there to take their cars. "But the tow trucks get there in one or two minutes," says Ruford, "because several of them hang out in the alley behind the Taco Bell next to the Longs lot waiting for the calls.

"Wouldn't it make more sense for Longs to hire someone to warn people off the lot rather than towing them away? It would only cost them about $65 a day. Since they do it by towing instead," says Ruford, "it makes me wonder about a possible percentage of the towing fee, maybe 20 percent, being paid to Longs. In all this, the money motive is too great."

Western Towing's Malone says "spiffing" is the name for the practice Ruford is talking about. He also insists that his company has never engaged in it.

Still, says Ruford, "Think of the profits. If the towing company tows 20 cars a night near the beach at $240 each, they're taking in $4800. And that's probably a low estimate."

As a cab driver, Ruford looks for return business. "An East Coast woman who had her car towed told me that she will never come back to San Diego. I tried to point out other good things she could enjoy in town if she would only follow the rules. 'I'm never coming back here,' she said."

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