Privatised city workers, or why tow truck drivers are extortionists.

Sometimes I go hunting for explanations of why a problem exists, and often end up at a realisation that it has something to do with privatisation. In this case, I didn’t even have to try.

The Back Story: The HMV on Robson Street is going out of business. Today is their last day.  I went in back in December and they had signs up saying they were selling off their furniture, and to enquire about it.  I did, and bought and paid for a CD/DVD “end cap” shelf that was originally used back when this store was a Virgin Megastore.  It was still in use at the time so, long story short, I went to pick it up today.

I had been told by the manager at the time that the easiest place to put a vehicle was the laneway off Robson.  I rented a Zipcar and drove there, pulling into the laneway and finding very few spots to park as there were already three other vehicles parked there.  I turned the corner to the laneway that opens onto Burrard and found it empty, save for a few very large signs reading “Fire lane! Do not park!” or something to that effect.  Not wanting to disobey those signs, I turned back and found a spot in the laneway I came in on.

I went into the store, and after a couple minutes of figuring out the best approach and ensuring everything was in order, I headed out of the store along with an employee who was kind enough to help lift the shelf out to the vehicle for me (it was surprisingly light, fortunately, so getting it out of the vehicle at my apartment was no issue afterwards).  I came out to discover my vehicle being connected to a tow truck with Busters Towing decals all over it (and some other legal name printed on the side… I stupidly didn’t note this or the license plate down).  I said to him “that’s mine!”  He said okay, and that I’d have to pay him half of the towing fee ($45, he said, though ultimately the invoice actually said $42.64) and if I’d be so kind as to pay him in cash that would be great.

At this point I paused and had a “what the fuck?” moment.  I also noticed, for the first time, the small sign (at least, relative to the ones in the other laneway) that read “no parking” behind where I had parked.  It was clearly not a City of Vancouver sign, but based on the ticket I was issued it was obviously just reminding people of a general rule I didn’t know about to begin with, being “no stopping on either side of a lane which abuts commercially used property.”  Which, given the width of this laneway easily allows 2-3 vehicles to pass one another, is a pretty stupid rule.  But I digress.

Since this guy was asking me to hand over my own cash in exchange for not being towed, I challenged him and asked who he was.  He said he worked for the city, which I asked him to prove, since the words “Busters Towing” were all over his vehicle and his uniform.  He refused to provide any evidence, and merely pointed to the ticket that was on my windshield.  I’m not clear where the ticket came from, to be honest, as it was somehow issued in the five minutes or so I was inside the store – I suspect this company has been subcontracted not only to do towing but also to issue tickets and that he himself issued the ticket.  After I challenged the fact that he clearly did not work directly for the city, he said that the city issued the ticket and that he was hired by them to do the towing.

He then asked if I was going to pay. I told him I would happily pay the city (I had at this point realised I clearly made an error in parking there) but I wasn’t going to pay him, because really, who the fuck was he?  He then, without another word to explain what the fuck he was doing, continued to hook up the vehicle to his tow truck.  I asked what he was doing, and he said “you don’t pay, I take your car.”  At this point, realising I was essentially dealing with extortion, I said I was calling the city to find out who he was and whether he was authorised to do so.  A legitimate request, right? As far I know, this guy is some private business owner who is stealing my vehicle, and refused to prove otherwise.  After that didn’t delay him (he muttered something about wasting my time), he insisted again that I should pay him.

I told him I wanted a receipt, showed him I only had $10 cash on me, and asked if he would take a credit card. He would, thankfully (in retrospect, I should have demanded this to begin with, as now he has to pay the credit card fee and it also wasted a lot of his time in having to call in the number), and processed it and released my vehicle, proceeding to the next vehicle behind me to try to tow it.  There were, at this point, still three other vehicles behind me that had all been there longer than I had.

I’m not challenging the fact that I deserved a ticket – ignorance of the law is no excuse, and while I think that this particular rule is really stupid (why have laneways if they can’t be used for loading/unloading vehicles?), there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’m also not even challenging the ability of the city to tow vehicles parked illegally on city property, which was clearly the case here.

I’m challenging the fact that the city has essentially issued a license to a private company to take people’s money and to enforce by-laws as it sees fit.  In particular, what I find offensive about this is:

  • The fact that the private company refuses to provide any evidence that it is authorised to engage in towing on the city’s behalf.  As far as I knew (though a quick Google search suggests they are in fact contracted by the city) this guy was stealing my vehicle.  He had no evidence of any connections to the city of Vancouver, nor was he even willing to provide any, or await confirmation via 3-1-1 (who I eventually called while I was waiting for him to process my credit card, but waited on hold so long the whole thing was over before I even got through to anyone).
  • If the purpose of towing vehicles is to remove them from the offensive sites (I can’t think of any other purpose from the city’s perspective, though clearly the purpose on the part of Busters Towing is to make money), then there is no reason that a vehicle should be towed if its owner is physically present and willing to remove it.
  • No one should ever be forced to pay cash (or credit) immediately upon receiving a ticket, and in particular no one should ever be forced to pay money to a private company for any reason.  I get that by-laws are not the same as criminal laws, but the basic principles of our legal system suggest the right to a fair process.  Having to pay a company to NOT tow your vehicle is absolutely absurd, and in my view amounts to extortion.  I’m not even sure if this act was legal, but if it was then I’m strongly of the view that it should not be.  The by-law violation ticket is fully enforceable, so there’s no reason they should still need to tow the vehicle.
  • The goals of private towing companies and goals of the city are in this case completely at odds.  The goal of the city is to enforce its laws and to ensure the laneways are kept clear (I’m still not clear on why, but whatever).  The goal of the towing company is to make money.  It took far more time to stand there and have my credit card processed (and would also have taken far more time for him to continue hooking up my vehicle had that route happened) than it would have for me to get in the vehicle and drive away.  If the purpose of these rules is to keep the laneway clear, they are not working as they are supposed to under this arrangement.  The process should simply allow people to drive off, and be forced to pay the city’s fine – repossession of private vehicles will not help accomplish this goal, but will help the private companies make money, which is what puts them at odds.

I’m trying to decide who to send this to.  City councillors? Someone administrative at the city?  Please make suggestions in the comments.  I fully plan to pay the $50 fine, but really don’t think there’s any justification for having paid the “release fee” as the invoice from Busters calls it.  I’m tempted to challenge it with the credit card company as being a charge made under duress but wonder if there are any grounds for doing so.  I would love to hear people’s thoughts.

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17 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t have any expertise, but I fully agree that tow truck cos. are extorting money (I think often the city is complicit, though maybe not to this extreme). I have a whole rant about Boston, MA tow trucks…best of luck!

    Reply

  2. I don’t know you’ll find anything useful to your situation, but try looking up the background of QAP Towing. In London in the early ’90s this company basically held downtown London, Ontario hostage with its aggressive tactics. Their drivers would do things like remove vehicles that hadn’t been tagged or hoist vehicles that had a few minutes left on the meters and wait (or not) for the time to run out, and if you were shopping in a private lot that they “patrolled” and then went to a store in the next plaza, they would tow your car. They became so unpopular that they made international news, and London changed laws specifically to put them out of business – it’s basically illegal to tow a vehicle without the owner’s permission in London now. 20 years later, tow truck drivers in London still get yelled at and attacked when they’re doing legitimate tows (breakdowns, etc).

    I’ve only ever been towed once, and for good reason (parked on University during rush hour, before I lived here) and a helpful cop got me a ride to the impound with another tow truck driver. Still an expensive mistake. I believe that lot is now the condos across from the Air Canada Centre.

    Reply

  3. Since Greg gave me hope that something might actually be done about this… I wrote an email to council and the mayor. I borrowed heavily from my original post here; here is the (very lengthy) text:

    Councillors, Mayor,

    I’m writing today regarding an incident that happened to me yesterday downtown. The back story is unimportant, but I had made arrangements to acquire a piece of furniture from the HMV store that recently closed on Robson Street. I had been told by the manager at the time that the easiest place to load a vehicle was the laneway off Robson.

    I rented a Zipcar and drove there, pulling into the laneway and finding very few spots to park as there were already three other vehicles parked there. I turned the corner to the laneway that opens onto Burrard and found it empty, save for a few very large signs reading “Fire lane! Do not park!” or something to that effect. Not wanting to disobey those signs, I turned back and found a spot in the laneway I came in on.

    I went into the store, and after a couple minutes headed out of the store along with an employee who was kind enough to help lift the shelf out to the vehicle for me. I came out to discover my vehicle being connected to a tow truck with Busters Towing decals all over it (and some other legal name printed on the side… I unfortunately didn’t note this or the license plate). I said to him “that’s mine!” He said okay, and that I’d have to pay him half of the towing fee ($45, he said, though ultimately the invoice actually said $42.64) and if I’d be so kind as to pay him in cash that would be great.

    It was only at this point that I noticed, for the first time, the small sign (at least, relative to the ones in the other laneway) that read “no parking” behind where I had parked. It was clearly not a City of Vancouver sign, but based on the ticket I was issued it was obviously just reminding people of a general rule I didn’t know about to begin with, being “no stopping on either side of a lane which abuts commercially used property.” Given the width of this laneway easily allows 2-3 vehicles to pass one another, I’m not sure what the purpose of such a rule is and why it contrasts to similar rules in residential laneways.

    Since the driver was asking me to hand over my own cash in exchange for not being towed, I challenged him and asked who he was. He said he worked for the city, which I asked him to prove, since the words “Busters Towing” were all over his vehicle and his uniform. The City of Vancouver logo was nowhere to be seen. He refused to provide any evidence, and merely pointed to the ticket that was on my windshield. I’m not clear where the ticket came from, to be honest, as it was somehow issued in the five minutes or so I was inside the store – I suspect this company has been subcontracted not only to do towing but also to issue tickets and that he himself issued the ticket (though I have no evidence of this). After I challenged the fact that he clearly did not work directly for the city, he said that the city issued the ticket and that he was hired by them to do the towing.

    He then asked if I was going to pay. I told him I would happily pay the city (I had at this point realised I clearly made an error in parking there – I’m not disputing or challenging this at all) but I wasn’t going to pay him, because from my perspective (since he refused to provide any evidence to the contrary) he was a private individual who was attempting to steal my car. He then, without another word to explain what he was doing, continued to hook up the vehicle to his tow truck. I asked what he was doing, and he said “you don’t pay, I take your car.”

    At this point, realising I was essentially dealing with extortion, I said I was calling the city to find out who he was and whether he was authorised to do so. This person who could prove no legitimate connection to the municipal government had offered me the choice between giving him my vehicle and giving him my cash for providing no service whatsoever. After that didn’t delay him (he muttered something about wasting my time), he insisted again that I should pay him. Clearly having no choice, I begrudgingly agreed.

    I told him I wanted a receipt, showed him I only had $10 cash on me, and asked if he would take a credit card. He did, and processed it and released my vehicle, proceeding to the next vehicle behind me to try to tow it. There were, at this point, still three other vehicles behind me that had all been there longer than I had. I attempted to call 3-1-1 while I was waiting for him to process my credit card, but waited on hold so long the whole thing was over before I even got through to anyone.

    I’m not challenging the fact that I deserved a ticket – ignorance of the law is no excuse, and while I think that this particular rule is really pointless (why have laneways if they can’t be used for loading/unloading vehicles?), there’s nothing I can do about it.

    I’m also not even challenging the ability of the city to tow vehicles parked illegally on city property, which was clearly the case here.

    I’m challenging the fact that the city has essentially issued a license to a private company to take people’s money and to enforce by-laws as it sees fit.

    I don’t expect any of you to intervene in this specific situation – while I do feel as if this driver effectively took my money under duress I don’t expect city councillors to intervene in specific confrontations. I should also note that I have already paid the city-issued ticket and I’m not disputing that whatsoever.

    I would, however, like some clarification, and to make the following general requests with respect to by-law enforcement in the city.

    First, I would love an explanation of why vehicles are prohibited from loading or unloading in any laneways in the city that abut commercially used property. This rule makes very little sense to me given that Vancouver’s laneways are usually sufficiently wide to accommodate many vehicles (which is a unique, and pleasant, feature in this city’s design of which I’m quite proud), which could include a fire truck in the case of an emergency.

    Second, if there is to be such a municipal by-law, why is it not signposted in the same manner as other parking/stopping by-laws? The signage for this particular by-law seems to be at the discretion of the property owners, unlike normal parking by-laws where the city puts up standard, consistent, signage that is clear, visible, and easy to understand. While I as a Vancouver resident should probably have known better what the municipal by-laws are, it seems highly unlikely that most visitors would know the intricacies of our municipal by-laws. Leaving signage up to the discretion of property owners leaves the opportunity for others to be confused and/or violate this by-law without intending to.

    Finally, I would like to very strongly encourage council to reconsider the entire concept of outsourcing by-law enforcement to private companies, or at the very least this particular private company. The goals of private towing companies and goals of the city conflict completely in this case. The goal of the city is to enforce its laws and to ensure the laneways are kept clear (for whatever reason that may be). The goal of the towing company is to make money. It took far more time to stand there and have my credit card processed (and would also have taken far more time for him to continue hooking up my vehicle had that route happened) than it would have for me to get in the vehicle and drive away. The only reason I can imagine the driver insisted on me paying him in exchange for not being towed is so that he could earn a profit (which, given the minimal amount of work he ‘performed,’ was likely substantial) – this does not in any way serve the city’s needs.

    In short, if the city is hiring towing companies to keep the streets clear, then the city should not be allowing the same towing companies to hold vehicles as collateral to collect fees for non-services. Private business owners should not have the same rights as the municipal government.

    If the purpose of these rules is to keep the laneway clear, they are not working as they are supposed to under this arrangement. The process should simply allow people to drive off (if they are present – I’m not denying the benefit of towing vehicles when their drivers are not present), and be forced to pay the city’s fine – repossession of private vehicles will not help accomplish this goal, but will help the private companies make money, which is what puts privatised enforcement at odds with the city. If the city were to do this towing itself, there would be no motivation on the part of the city employee to prevent a vehicle owner from driving off, and this problem would be resolved. There’s no particular reason that the cost of maintaining a fleet of tow trucks could not be built into the cost of fines.

    Failing an insourcing of the city’s enforcement activities, I would like if the city could implement stronger controls to solve three specific problems:

    1. The fact that the private company contracted refuses to provide any evidence that it is authorised to engage in towing on the city’s behalf is a significant problem. As far as I, or anyone else in a similar situation, could tell this guy was stealing my vehicle. He had no evidence of any connections to the city of Vancouver, nor was he even willing to provide any, or await confirmation via 3-1-1. At the very least some form of clear and identifiable decal on the company’s vehicle stating it is “under contract to the City of Vancouver,” or a standardised identification card proving authorisation of the contractor, would be a good start.

    2. No one should ever be forced to pay cash (or credit) immediately upon receiving a ticket, and in particular no one should ever be obligated to pay money to a private company that has not provided any service. I understand that by-laws are not the same as criminal laws, but the basic principles of our legal system suggest the right to a fair process. Having to pay a company NOT to tow your vehicle is absolutely absurd, and in my view amounts to extortion. I’m not even sure if this act was legal, but if it was then I’m strongly of the view that it should not be. The by-law violation ticket is fully enforceable, so there’s no reason they should still need to tow the vehicle if the driver is willing to remove it from the offending area. I sincerely request that the city develop guidelines with respect to such situations as I suspect this is not an uncommon scenario.

    3. 3-1-1 should have a shorter hold time. I honestly don’t remember how long I was on hold but it was unacceptably long given the situation I was in. It certainly wasn’t an emergency, but was clearly time sensitive. Waiting on hold for five minutes or longer is not appropriate for such a public service.

    I thank you for your time in reading what has turned out to be a rather lengthy correspondence. I appreciate council’s hard work in making sure this city runs properly.

    Yours sincerely,
    Neal Jennings
    [my address]

    Reply

  4. Posted by Justice on 2012/05/06 at 4:18 pm

    Crimes of dishonesty, I am challenging them right now, we will see who is going to win.
    Criminal Code Section
    354,355 Possession of stolen property over $5,000
    335 Take motor vehicle without consent
    346(1) Extortion
    I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal advice.
    I am creditor in commerce and there is no law, everything works on Contracts and
    Bills of Exchange R.S.C., 1985
    All the tickets are money order who signs…pays.
    You have 30 days to chalenge them if they don’t comply and there is a silence you are
    winning.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Justice on 2012/05/06 at 5:45 pm

    Parking enforcement is a private co and they are hiding in the bulding surrended
    with video cameras I think they are in contract with City. Don’t even try to call them
    or City… they do not care about anybody and they will never answer it that #311
    its all scam and fraud.
    ICBC is selling our private and personal information without our consent to Parking
    enforcement and City of Vancouver. When you get the original ticket, with red writing on the bottom keep it that is your original money order, do not ever dispute it, it’s a
    contract ( you can cash it in your bank) I haven’t try that yet?
    Wait for the letter from City of Vancouver, do not open it. Write it anywhere on the envelope
    I reject your offer of contract or I do not wish to contract with you and send it back.
    You’ll never hear from them again.
    I am challenging even VPD since last december… only silence 😉
    I will be sending all my presentments for unpaid bills to Honorable Minister K.Falcon
    Do not worry about Busters anymore I have sent them and the City of Vancouver
    their last warning Notice

    Yours sincerely
    Justice ;))
    Not Legal advice

    Reply

  6. Posted by Justice on 2012/05/06 at 10:06 pm

    My apologies, Red writing on tickets ( presents our blood, because there is no money
    only worthless paper) remember used to be voluntary? and now is only extortion…
    you have to beg them for forgiveness by paying? I went to City and asked them to show me The license and contract with Busters….. They told me is not my business
    and they are not going to show me anything? I told them to removed my private and
    personal information from their database and they have refused? By the way they told me they’ve paid money to ICBC to get my personal and private information?
    O.K. Red writing on parking tickets is on the left top of the tickets… Notice…this is an
    offer to contract or offer to appear at the hearing, because there is no $$$ and the
    Queen needs to be take care off….
    Police tickets are complete fraud and they do not give you even original money order
    they will give you alleged offender’s copy? what a joke, never ever give them your
    signature, ask them for their business card and take the copy of money order, ministry of
    finance should pay you back that money for misrepresentation of Peace officers,
    how come they have a business cards? when they are suppose to make a peace?
    Justice
    Peace and Love

    Reply

  7. 1. busters does not issue parking tickets, city bylaw officers do. They drive around in small cars between 7am and 2am 7 days a week. they have a yellow light on top.
    Also the police can issue a ticket if they see a violation. Both of these enforcement officers will respond to both things they see and complaints received from the public.
    2. lane ways are for commercial vehicles so they dont block the road. The whole point of a lane is to give a truck a place to unload so its not in the street. Its not an extended parking lot. i
    3. the tow release fee is to cover the drivers costs relating to driving to the spot after being dispatched by busters which only happens after the bylaw officer writes the ticket. The release fee is also to cover the labor for the work to hook up your vehicle. nobody works for free man, it just sucks more when you have to pay somebodies wage directly!

    Reply

  8. you say “nobody works for free” as if somehow I chose to have you work for me. I didn’t. This doesn’t change the fact that I think the by-law is stupid.

    I do still find it suspicious that in such a short period of time the bylaw officer was able to issue the ticket and your vehicle was able to get my vehicle up on the hoists.

    As for your point #2, you’ve ignored the fact that I was using the laneway to load and unload. This option isn’t available to anyone in this particular laneway, including actual customers of the businesses inside the adjacent building.

    Reply

    • also, regardless of whether the drop fee is legal, if the goal is to remove the vehicle as quickly as possible there’s no reason this couldn’t be paid after. You have the license plate of the vehicle and if the city really believes it’s a worthwhile thing to charge for, they can enforce the debt.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Fuck Busters on 2013/03/15 at 6:54 pm

    I tried to find out from the City how much of the tow fee they take and they told me to fike a FOI request. CRIMINALS.

    Reply

    • Posted by Fuck Busters on 2013/03/15 at 6:55 pm

      Towed me 2 blocks and charged me $95. Dont worry Motherfuckers you will get yours.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Colt on 2015/06/11 at 6:19 pm

    I fully empathize,
    my wife just went through a very similar ordeal. she was parked in vancouver just off broadway and renfrew. The street had parking meters but was no parking after 3pm. She found her self standing 20 feet away from her car at exactly 3;01pm with keys in her hand watching her car get towed by busters. I guess the argument can be made that she was late, but we are talking seconds not minutes. she argued with him and he demanded she pay $39.97. she payed the money via credit card and received a poorly legible carbon copy receipt. which had no usable info on it. she then discovered that there was no parking ticket or (pink slip) on her windsheld from the city of vancouver She had been left with the impression that once she payed the drivers fine that it would be over. We then received a collection notice a month and a half later. I phoned the city to find out what was going on, and after the usual run-around found out the name of the tow-company and that a city ticket had been issued by a city BY_LAW officer at 3:56pm the same day. which in reality my wife was already gone by 3:30 after the tow truck driver put her car down after paying the fine. We asked why we received a collection notice and not a simple fine and found out that they had sent those letters to the lease company of our car which made no sense after they had our address right on the collection notice. I argued my case with the vancouver city hall complaints office and had found also that pictures are eligibility taken when tickets are issued but not time stamped. so I argued that if a time stamp was not on this alleged photo what was stoping someone from taking the picture at 2:30 pm for instance? He had no answer, and then stated that i was late in paying the $ 150 by-law ticket
    so this is what happens when the city privatizes law enforcement. absolute power corrupts absolutly
    GOOD LUCK

    Reply

  11. Posted by Andrea on 2016/05/23 at 10:28 am

    Their pictures aren’t time stamped?! How could they possibly count as any kind of evidence? You are innocent until proven guilty and their non-time stamped photo doesn’t prove anything! It sounds like Buster from Busters realized his mistake and had a buddy by-law officer issue the ticket afterward.

    I cannot believe that the City of Vancouver has sub-contracted ONE company to do their towing. That sounds utterly undemocratic.

    Reply

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