Iowa has ‘among the worst protections’ from abusive towing in the nation. In Des Moines, criticism has centered on one tow company

A Crow’s Auto Service truck in Des Moines, Oct. 19, 2022. — Tyler Erickson/Little Village

One year after a Des Moines towing and impound company lost its contract with Polk County amid allegations of predatory behavior, the controversy ignited a wider discussion about towing laws and the rights of motorists.

The towing and impound company Crow’s Auto Service, Inc. (better known as Crow Tow) has been in business for over 20 years. According to its now-defunct website, “Crow Tow is in the business to provide a high quality, affordable service to the general public and our local and state police agencies.”

“I have always had an interest in cars,” Randy Crow, owner of Crow Tow, told Little Village in an email. “We originally operated a service station that would impound cars for the city and county and grew from there.”

For years, Crow Tow has faced widespread allegations of unethical or illegal towing, vehicles being held hostage for cash-only exchanges, vehicles being ransacked or damaged, verbal abuse and intimidation by employees and refusal to provide evidence for why vehicles are towed.

Motorists typically vent their frustrations by posting online reviews reflecting their negative experiences. As of Oct. 20, Crow Tow has 2.3 stars out of a possible five stars based on 908 Google reviews, 1.3 stars out of five based on 70 votes on Facebook, and one star out of five based on 85 reviews on Yelp. While each review is subjective and should be taken with a grain of salt, the overwhelming negative consensus and recurring trends are difficult to ignore.

“Nobody likes to have their car towed,” Crow said. “Negative online comments from those who are towed are simply a consequence of that. When complaints are made and adequate information is provided, we conduct an investigation. The claims are not supported by the documented facts.”

The Polk County towing contract was set to expire on June 30, 2021, and Crow Tow lost their contract bid after the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously, 5-0, to award the bid to G&S Towing Service of Des Moines instead.

Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith has been a vocal critic of Crow Tow.

“The issue before us at the time was whether we’re going to award them the bid for Polk County,” Hockensmith told Little Village. “What I shared during the meeting, as well as publicly, was that the law requires we accept the lowest, responsible and responsive bidder. Our office had received multiple calls and inquiries about some of Crow Tow’s practices.”

Hockensmith said there were a number of factors he and the other supervisors looked at before reaching their decision, including complaints from the public. Around this time, Iowa resident Heather Gulbranson published a petition at calling for the city to end its contract with Crow Tow. To date, the petition has over 7,500 signatures.

“Personally, I am of the opinion that it is more than a coincidence when you have that many people saying the same things, over and over again, about their predatory practices,” Hockensmith said. “Mr. Crow doesn’t seem to think they have predatory practices, but the majority of people I’ve talked to that have experience with them wasn’t good.”

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Crow said business has “not significantly” been impacted, but criticized the board for rescinding the contract, singling out Hockensmith because of a past interaction the supervisor had with Crow Tow in 2020. Hockensmith said that he went to the Brownstones, where his daughter was living at the time, to help place two delivered packages in her garage while she was on vacation. He parked in the alley, and by his account, in less than 30 seconds, a Crow Tow truck was already hooking the car, with the driver’s side door open and the engine running.

Crow and Hockensmith’s accounts differ from one another, but Hockensmith was not alone on the board when the decision came to a vote.

“We have the authority under Iowa law to make that determination whether they are a responsible bidder,” Hockensmith said. “We determined that they weren’t. If I had the same information in front of me that I did when the decision was made, I would make the same decision all over again.”

While Crow Tow lost its contract with Polk County, the company still has one with the City of Des Moines. It was first awarded the towing bid in 2014. The city’s current contract with Crow Tow, which started in 2020, is set to expire on Feb. 28, 2023. The city and Crow Tow will then have the option to extend the contract for one year or put the contract up for bid again.

“We have a great working relationship and look forward to continuing it into the future,” Crow said about the contract with the city.

When asked about citizen complaints regarding Crow Tow, Captain Daniel Blom of the Des Moines Police Department told Little Village in an email, “Each complaint is investigated and measured against the requirements of the contract. None of the complaints received in 2021 were a result of the 4,247 impounds Crow Towing performed for Des Moines Police Department last year. Complaints received were the result of business Crow Towing did outside of the contract.”

Blom added, “The option to extend the contract with Crow Towing, or have the contract go out for bid, has not been discussed at this point.”

Tyler Erickson/Little Village

Towing companies provide important services such as clearing the roads when there is a car accident or moving a vehicle when it breaks down so it can be repaired. These are also lucrative services that can be abused when motivated by profit.

Towing is an $11.3 billion industry in the United States, according to industry research firm IBISWorld, and business is expected to grow. As safety features on new vehicles help reduce the number of accidents, the industry is becoming increasingly dependent on non-consensual tows.

The 2021 towing survey conducted by The American Property Casualty Insurance Association found that among the biggest problems consumers and insurers face with towing companies were “creative billing practices” being used to pad towing bills and charge astronomical amounts for daily storage fees, as well as practices that “make it difficult to recover a vehicle or even gain access in order to get personal effects or commercial cargo.”

In May 2021, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund published the report “Getting Off the Hook of a Predatory Tow.” By conducting an exhaustive study of state laws regarding towing and enforcement, U.S. PIRG found, “An alarmingly high number of states have no protections spelled out on issues such as whether a consumer is entitled to an itemized or reimbursement if their car is damaged.” Additionally, “too many states have inadequate protections, or the laws on the books are vague or overwrought and inaccessible to the average consumer.”

A sign in downtown Des Moines, September 2022. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

U.S. PIRG compiled a list of 14 fair practice protections for motorists. Based on their “common-sense” suggestions, Iowa is ranked with Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Vermont with having the fewest protections from abusive towing practices.

Iowa law does not require towing companies to photograph vehicles before they are towed, to accept credit card payments, to have designated hours for vehicle pick up, to release cars at no charge or for a smaller “drop fee” before a vehicle has been completely removed from the property, to reimburse drivers for vehicles damaged during the towing process, or to allow access to personal belongings (including emergency items such as wallets, keys and medication).

Director of the consumer watchdog office of U.S. PIRG, Teresa Murray, is the co-author of the second part of the “Getting off the Hook of a Predatory Tow” report, published on April 27. She told Little Village that Iowa sticks out for all the wrong reasons.

“We were astounded by how lousy these protections are in the vast majority of states,” Murray said. “Iowa has among the worst protections nationwide. We couldn’t find anything to address maximum towing rates, maximum storage rates, even whether towing companies are required to display their rates.”

The only protections in Iowa include towing companies being required to notify owners or lienholders about their vehicle being towed and having to reimburse drivers if a tow is proven to be illegal.

The U.S. PIRG report also found no laws in Iowa requiring clear tow-away parking signs in private lots or any laws preventing towing companies from patrolling (or “cruising”) private lots for vehicles deemed by drivers to be parked illegally.

“What we have come across in many states is horror story after horror story where you have tow trucks that have a contract with a property owner, and they’re allowed to patrol the parking lot any time, day or night, then tow whoever they want if they think there isn’t enough air in the tire or the parking permit is slanted,” Murray said. “When you have these contracts, you’re incentivizing towing companies to tow. That’s clearly a moneymaker. When you incentivize towing for invalid reasons, that’s predatory.”

Alex Kornya, Iowa Legal Aid litigation director and general counsel, said he has seen abusive practices by towing companies in his 14 years as a legal aid attorney in Iowa.

“The law, unfortunately, in some ways makes it easy to exert pressure on people and put people in difficult situations,” Kornya said. “Sometimes the law is either unclear or specifically negative. Some things I see, even under what rights do exist for vehicle owners in Iowa, I think are abusive practices if not illegal practices.”

The negative impact of predatory towing and lack of consumer protections have finally entered the national spotlight in recent years. A growing number of states and local municipalities have passed, or are considering, measures to crack down on predatory towing, whether perpetrated by illegitimate “road pirates” or by licensed towing services working alone or in conjunction with local law enforcement.

This year, Colorado lawmakers passed sweeping reforms with new legislation — a “Towing Bill of Rights” — to protect motorists from unfair towing practices. The bill was signed into law on June 7 and went into effect on Aug. 10. When state legislators have failed to change the laws, cities and municipalities across the country have acted to change. Major cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Memphis, Tennessee have strengthened consumer protections, including requirements for tow companies to accept credit and debit cards.

The Iowa Legislature passed a bill this year, HF 654, that prohibits companies from having sirens on tow trucks. No bills addressing predatory towing practices were introduced.

“It seems that the areas where this is the biggest problem are lower-income neighborhoods, apartment complexes, college campuses, senior citizen buildings and communities of color — a lot of times, where towing companies feel like they have a vulnerable population that may not have access to a lot of the resources you and I have,” Murray said. That’s who these companies have “taken advantage of the most.”

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a freelance journalist and National Writers Union member based in Des Moines. He first reported on towing disparities with the article “Wrecked: Vehicle towings take a huge toll on America’s poor” for the Oct/Nov 2019 issue of The Progressive.