Towing incident raises specter of scam

Posted on 03 May 2007 at 9:13pm
By John Wright Staff Writer

Office Depot officials, property owner say they did not authorize company that towed 10-12 cars from lot

About a dozen people who had their vehicles towed from an Oak Lawn parking lot the evening of Saturday, April 28, may have fallen victim to a possible scam resulting in thousands of dollars in combined losses.

Dallas city code requires that before towing from a private parking lot, a company must have authorization from either the owner of the property or the party leasing it.

Mary Davis, owner of Dallas-based Cencir Inc., which towed the vehicles from the lot, said she has a contract with Office Depot, which leases the property at 2929 Oak Lawn Ave.

However, a spokeswoman for Office Depot denied that, and Davis did not provide Dallas Voice with a copy of the contract or any details about it.

A representative from Hold-Thyssen Inc., which manages the property for owner Oak Lawn Holdings, also said it has not given Cencir authorization to tow from the lot.

The lot is a popular place for clubgoers to park due to its proximity to the Cedar Springs strip.

“I’ll just say it’s not unheard of that companies might tow off of a property that they don’t have a valid contract on,” said Gary Titlow, a transportation regulation manager for the city of Dallas.

However, the city doesn’t typically take action unless victims of illegal towing file complaints with his department, Titlow said. The city then can prosecute companies in municipal court, where judges can impose fines of up to $500 per violation. Two violations within a 12-month span can result in revocation of a towing company’s license, Titlow said.

He confirmed that Cencir has a license with the city.

Individuals who believe they’ve been illegally towed also may request hearings, within 14 days of the tow, before justices of the peace to try to recoup their monetary losses, and file complaints with the Texas Department of Transportation, Titlow said.

“‘I have kids to feed, too’

Terry Catherman, 40, said he and his partner, who live in Mansfield, parked in the Office Depot parking lot that night as they typically do when they visit Cedar Springs.

“I’ve parked there for years, and I’ve never had a problem,” Catherman said.

When Catherman and his partner, 23-year-old Jason Allen, returned to the lot a few hours later at about 1 a.m., though, they got an unpleasant surprise.

One hundred thirty-eight dollars and 2 1/2 hours later, they arrived home after getting a ride from Allen’s mother, who lives in Mesquite, to an impound yard in North Dallas.

Under state law, the operator of a vehicle impound yard is required to provide information about people’s right to request hearings before justices of the peace, as well as the names, addresses and phone numbers of the towing company and the impound yard.

But Catherman said all he got was a receipt listing only the name and address of the impound yard, Carr Storage at 2261 Wisconsin St. in Dallas. And although the vehicle model, make and identification number were correct, under “owner,” the receipt listed a Middle Eastern-sounding name with an address in Arlington.

“I’m going to pursue this,” Catherman said.

Contacted by the Voice, Cencir owner Davis said Catherman’s was one of 10 to 12 vehicles her company towed from the lot that night. She also said Cencir would have towed more vehicles but didn’t have enough wreckers available.

Davis said she put up signs at all three entrances to Office Depot on Friday morning, April 27, but allowed more than 24 hours before beginning to tow.

“When you pull in there, you can’t miss the sign,” she said. “I don’t think it’s my fault that the people didn’t know.”

After learning that the vehicles were towed, store management removed the signs, but Davis later said she planned to put them back up.

“We’re going to tow the vehicles because the contract that I have is with corporate,” she said. “It’s not out of spite that I do it, it’s how I make my living. Just like everybody else, I have kids to feed, too.”

Davis said she recently signed a one-year contract with Office Depot. Pressed for details about the contract, she offered the phone number of another woman who she said is an employee of Cencir.

The woman said she knows Davis but does not work for Cencir.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” the woman said, adding she’d received three calls from people who’d been towed. “I don’t know why they keep giving my number out.”

Davis later said she didn’t know why the woman was denying that she works for Cencir. Davis then said she would personally gather details about the contract and provide them to the Voice but she never did.

“‘It’s a criminal offense’

Melissa Pearlman, a spokeswoman for Delray Beach, Fla.-based Office Depot, said the company does not encourage people to park in the lot after the store closes at 9 p.m. However, she insisted Office Depot has no contract with Cencir.

“The lot is intended for customers’ use during the day. However, the signs will not be put back up, and cars will not be towed,” Pearlman said. “Basically, the towing company put it [the signage] out without permission, and that’s the reason that it’s been taken down.”

Joy Myers, asset manager for property management at Hold-Thyssen, based in Winter Park, Fla., said her client, the owner of the property, has no contract with Cencir.

“We as the landlord and the landlord’s representative did not authorize any towing signs to be installed on that property,” she said. “I would have signed it [a contract] personally as an agent for the owner, and I have not. All kinds of underhanded things could be going on here.”

Pat Johnson, an expert witness and consultant for the Austin-based watchdog group Texas Towing Compliance, said he believes companies should be prosecuted in criminal court when they tow illegally. “It’s not an uncommon thing for towing companies to do that,” he said. “If they don’t have written authorization from either the parking facility owner or agent that gives them authorization to tow vehicles from that parking facility, it’s a criminal offense. It’s like kidnapping your cars and holding them hostage.”

More information is available at www.texastowingcompliance.com.

E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

TOWED ILLEGALLY?

If you think your vehicle has been towed illegally from a private lot, you can file a complaint with the city of Dallas by calling Ruben Padilla at 214-670-3358. You also have 14 days from the date of the tow to request a hearing before a justice of the peace.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 4, 2007

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