Albuquerque auto theft: Victims paying the price in tow fees

Should the system change?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Victims across the state are having to pay hefty fines for something they didn’t ask for. Should the law change at the state level?

On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13 looked into why some stolen cars are racking up towing fees once they’ve been found.

Dan Monaghan knows now that age doesn’t make a lick of difference to a thief. He recently joined the club no one signs up for when someone swiped his 1997 Nissan pickup from right outside his home in northeast Albuquerque.

“We thought it was wise to put the least expensive vehicle out front and park my wife and my normal day car in the garage,” Monaghan explained. “That didn’t turn out that well.”

He returned home from work on a Monday evening, noticed his truck was missing, and called Albuquerque police to file a stolen vehicle report.

“It was a loss,” said Monaghan. “We just said, ‘It’s gone,’ not knowing any of the back story.”

What Monaghan didn’t know was that hours earlier while he was at work, APD actually found his truck stalled and abandoned just down the block.

Officers believe whoever stole it likely couldn’t drive a stick shift, and gave up before attempting the freeway.

APD had the truck towed to get it out of traffic, but even after reporting it stolen, Monaghan had no clue where his truck was.

“If we get it back, it’s gonna be torn up. If it’s not torn up it’s you know, somewhere in Canada or Mexico or who knows where,” Monaghan thought.

However, someone did know where it was. His truck never reached the border or got scrapped for parts. Instead, it sat for a week at Town and Country Towing on South Broadway, racking up daily storage fees.

Monaghan finally learned that when he got a call from an APD officer the following Saturday.

“It took that long to find out that they always had it,” Monaghan said. “It seems there could’ve been something connected here.”

APD officer Simon Drobik told KRQE News 13 the police department does have a system to connect those dots when they enter a license plate into the system. He said officers try and contact owners when they come across an abandoned vehicle.

“When we document the license plate when we tow something, it should sync up in our system,” Drobik explained. “It’s a situation where this one just seems to have fallen through the cracks.”

Victim pays the price:

Make no mistake, Monaghan is happy to have his truck back – especially since it wasn’t damaged. But it came with a price: $252.22 to Town and Country Towing.

A receipt break-down of the costs show Monaghan paid $100 for the tow fee, $15 for mileage, and $120 for eight days of storage fees, plus tax.

“It almost seems like the system is victimizing the victim again,” said Monaghan.

Dan Monaghan paid $252.22 in tow fees to get his stolen truck back.

The storage fee for each tow yard is regulated by the state at $15 per day. Monaghan points out he can park his truck in a covered garage at the airport for just $10 per day.

Each day that goes by, the total goes up. When the owner isn’t notified right away, the victim is faced with an even bigger bill.

While he doesn’t blame a particular agency for this misfortune, Monaghan said he wonders if situations like his could be better handled all around. “It’s a systemic failure,” said Dan.

“It could be a more reasonable fee and a better system of alerting us so it’s fewer days,” he added.

Who’s responsible?

Once a stolen or abandoned vehicle is towed, it’s up to the tow company to contact the registered owner and lien holder.

“That process is outlined by the state,” explained Jason Broz, owner of Town and Country Towing. “We have three days to obtain the MVD records and another two days to get the certified letter out.”

The certified letter notifying someone about their vehicle being towed is sent to the address listed on the vehicle’s registration.

Broz told KRQE News 13 in Monaghan’s case, his company followed the law.

“APD actually alerted him to where his vehicle was located before we could even alert him through the certified mail, which was within the time frame of the statute,” Broz said.

Still, Monaghan isn’t the only victim to pay the price for getting back a stolen vehicle.

Crystal Williams had her car stolen from her Albuquerque apartment complex in April. She didn’t find out until June that her car was actually found abandoned days after she reported it stolen.

Crystal said she learned from a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy that her car was sitting at ACME Towing. By then, the daily storage fees exceeded the value of the car, Williams said, and she couldn’t pay the tow company.

“There’s gotta be a better way,” Monaghan told KRQE News 13.

Should something change?

KRQE News 13 took the issue to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, or PRC, which regulates tow companies across the state.

“Should the law change for crime victims when it comes to storage fees?” KRQE News 13 asked PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza.

“I think it should,” she responded.

Espinoza said she’s interested in taking this question to the commission, and may ask for a moratorium on storage fees for victims of auto theft.

Another option Espinoza suggested was to make the criminals pay tow fees via restitution, but she admits restitution is often hard to enforce.

As the law stands, tow companies can use discretion when it comes to customer charges.

“And I would encourage them to work with the people that, they’ve impounded their vehicles,” Espinoza told KkRQE News 13.

Espinoza said she feels the frustration of people like Monaghan, who end up paying storage fees on top of having a vehicle stolen.

“I think it’s absolutely an obligation of the towing company to work with these people and to really make an extra effort to try to locate these people,” said Espinoza.

The PRC will investigate if someone files a complaint, but oversight is limited.

There are 321 tow companies across the state and just five PRC inspectors. Currently, tow companies can anticipate an inspection every three years.

“I think we should be more active,” said Espinoza. “I find it a huge rule violation if they are not notifying these people or trying to locate them within the amount of time that the rule states that they’re required to do so.”

Espinoza admits it’s hard to tell if someone isn’t notified within the five days, unless a complaint is filed.

If no one claims a vehicle within 45 days, Espinoza said a tow company can choose to keep, destroy, or sell the vehicle.

Tow company’s perspective:

Broz said Town and Country Towing has seen the effects of auto theft, with more stolen vehicles arriving on their lot. Town and Country is one of several tow companies contracted with the City of Albuquerque to handle calls from police.

Broz told KRQE News 13 his company does work with those customers, but Monaghan’s bill, he believes is fair.

“While we feel bad for victims, our expenses don’t change and our expenses aren’t capped,” Broz explained.

Just this year, the PRC approved added costs that tow companies can now charge for. Things like Standby/Waiting Time, Driveshaft/Axle Removal, or use of dollies and snow chains, Espinoza said are all new charges to the New Mexico Wrecker Tariff as of February 2017.

“They hadn’t had a rate increase in over ten years,” said Espinoza. “They felt that it was needed, the commission approved that.”

While tow fees can be expensive, Broz argues it’s a necessary expense.

Town and Country Towing says majority of their calls are accident-related.

“There are many many vehicles that we actually tow in that never get picked up, the bills never get paid,” he said. “Trying to take advantage of anyone in this case would be wrong.”

Broz said the requirements his company has to meet as a contractor with the City of Albuquerque are stringent and expensive.

“It is expensive per day to have a vehicle in a tow yard, but the reason for that is – it’s not a parking lot,” said Broz. “We actually have care and custody of that car and we’re responsible for it, so our insurance premiums reflect that responsibility the entire time we have it.”

The tow company owner also said drivers should consider the crime rate and full coverage insurance, which will pick up the tab for tow fees.

“I think that we’re all responsible right now to take a look at the city and realize that we are the leader right now in auto theft, which means that we all have to take a personal responsibility for our vehicles,” Broz added.

While police are taking calls, Town and Country’s Towing yard paints a picture of Albuquerque’s auto theft problem.

What’s it worth?

PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza’s office investigated Crystal Williams’ case and found a discrepancy in her tow bill.

According to Espinoza’s office, ACME Towing uses a third-party service called ‘Tapestry’ to obtain MVD records for vehicles.

Tapestry overlooked an address listed on Williams’ MVD record, according to Espinoza’s office.

As a result of the oversight, the PRC and ACME Towing helped reduce Williams’ tow storage fees from $2,119.69 ($15 per day for 133 days plus tax) to just $183.79. She finally took her car home last week.

As for ‘”Big Red,” even though she may not be the flashiest pickup, Monaghan knows what his truck is worth to him.

He paid the $252.22 tow bill and took his truck the Monday after it was stolen and subsequently found.

“It lives in the garage now,” said Monaghan.

One thing drivers can do is make sure the registration address is up-to-date. Otherwise, if a tow company sends a certified letter notifying someone their vehicle has been towed, that owner may not receive the notification.

If anyone runs into a problem with a tow bill or has questions about their case, customers may contact their PRC Commissioner and file a complaint.

 

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