Kansas City tries to rein in predatory, wreck-chasing tow trucks

Kansas City’s attempt to reduce tow truck wreck chasing and price gouging starts this week.

The city has just signed a contract with San Francisco-based Auto Return, a private company that will manage dispatching for police tows and for some motorists needing a tow who don’t know whom to call.

City officials say the new approach, which begins south of 87th Street on Tuesday, is designed in part to address Kansas City’s unwanted reputation for having some of the highest tow bills in the country. Police now will be allowed to summon a reputable tow company, which could help motorists avoid tow bills that have sometimes exceeded $1,000.

“A quality service for those that need it, at a reasonable price,” is how Regulated Industries manager Gary Majors describes the goal of the new program.

More than a year ago, Majors and Lesly Forsberg, division manager for tow services, began investigating ways to improve the city’s system for towing vehicles from injury accidents or arrest scenes, as well as stolen or abandoned cars.

At the time, the city contracted with one company, Benfer’s Trucking, which had fewer than 10 trucks to respond to about 14,000 police-initiated calls per year.

Police often waited up to an hour for an authorized tow, and that encouraged unauthorized tow trucks to show up and take advantage of unsuspecting motorists.

Under the new system, Auto Return will subcontract with 24 tow companies and, using GPS tracking, will send the closest truck to the scene.

Majors predicts that the new system will cut the response time from 60 minutes to 20 minutes or less, thus cutting down on predatory tows and getting officers back in service much more quickly. The 24 companies, including Benfer, have been vetted for equipment, insurance, driver background checks and other quality standards.

To protect their business, Majors said, those companies will be on the lookout for non-authorized tow companies that would be tempted to chase wrecks.

“It’s having a lot more eyes on the street to report those that now are wreck chasing, that would be stealing money from these guys,” he said.

Another change also may help protect motorists from exorbitant charges. In the past, if a car broke down and just needed to be removed from the highway, police were not supposed to summon a tow or recommend a company. But a new policy says that if a motorist in an accident or breakdown doesn’t have a preferred tow company, he can ask police to summon the closest tow truck through Auto Return’s dispatching system. For a regular tow in the metro area, that fee would now be set at $200, Majors said.

“The beauty of it is, you’ll know right up front what the fee is and you’ll have some recourse if you don’t get good service, which currently you don’t have,” he said.

Not everyone is pleased. A total of 32 tow companies had expressed interest in working for Auto Return, but only 24 were selected, and some of those left out weren’t happy.

“I have heard some grumbling,” Majors said.

But he said Auto Return employees met personally with every tow company and spent considerable time making the selections. Those not picked either didn’t have the required equipment or didn’t meet other professional qualifications, Majors said.

The city plans a soft rollout of the new system beginning with the area south of 87th Street. The Northland will be added Oct. 9. That will allow any bugs to be worked out before the system goes live in the central part of the city, where most of the police-initiated tows occur. The program should be in place citywide by Nov. 1.

Forsberg said the city has already done some trials on the system.

“We’ve been working for a month on the ramp-up,” she said. “It’s working.”

Auto Return beat out two other qualified tow management companies that sought the city’s business. It was chosen based on its experience, technology and professionalism, Majors said.

The company has a one-year contract with the city, with the possibility of renewals for up to five years.

Auto Return will get $22 for each tow it manages. That dispatch management fee is folded into the cost of the tow bill. Motorists picking up their vehicles from Kansas City’s tow lot will now pay a $200 fee, up from the $165 fee that has been in place since 2009. Forsberg said that cost increase reflected not just Auto Return’s fees but other cost increases the city has seen with its tow lot in recent years.