Many of us probably don't think about the tow truck business that often. We're grateful when one randomly stops on the road when we're broken down (if they ever stop at all). We may think about them when we buy a new car or change our car insurance in determining whether or not we want roadside assistance, but for the most part our paths don't cross too often.
AOL Autos wanted to find out a little more about the extreme ins and outs of the tow truck business, so we caught up with a former tow truck driver in Virginia. He asked us to keep his name anonymous, so we will call him Dan, and in return he introduced us to the world of repossession and impound towing -- one that you hopefully won't have to visit too often.
The Repossession and Impound Business
Dan worked as a part-time driver for five years and gave us some insight into how the repossession business works. The first step is simply getting the address of the car. It doesn't matter how they find out where the person lives, they just need to have that address. Dan said that some finance companies give them an address, but if it's the wrong one, "They might have someone call the guy and tell him something stupid like he's won tickets to something and they want to know where to send them -- anything sneaky so they get the guy's address," he said. "Some people are so dumb that that they give their address and their car is just sitting there."
He said some people know it's a possibility their car will be repossessed so they park the car a few houses down thinking that the tow truck drivers won't be able to find it ... that doesn't work. We asked Dan what the best time to take a car was and he said, "Take them whenever! Whenever they least expect it."
Dan not only worked in repossessions, but also impounded vehicles for private companies. Sometimes he'd patrol apartment complexes and businesses that had hired Dan's company to tow away illegally parked vehicles. He told us many people ignore the "No Parking" and "24 Hour Towing" signs, and they pay the price. "It might be parked there all night, it might be parked there for 30 seconds; it's just parked there at the wrong time if the tow truck gets it."
When it comes to patrolling for illegally parked cars, Dan told us that this is where competition between the tow truck drivers kicks in. He said most tow truck drivers try to work it out, but he had a few issues. "I know I always had problems with other drivers because I only worked part time." Other drivers would claim certain properties belonged solely to them, but Dan still patrolled them. "It's not my fault they haven't been going and checking for cars," he told us. "They thought no one else would be at that property and little did they know I just rolled up and took all their cars."
Taking all the cars from a specific lot is referred to in this business as "burning up the property." Early one morning Dan and a co-worker found another driver from their company sleeping in his truck, waiting to pick up a few cars. "We caught him sleeping in the shopping center right around the corner from one of the communities, so we figured there had to be cars and we went over and towed four cars. He woke up at 6 a.m. thinking he could get cars and he rolled in and there weren't any."
Normally, these drivers won't grab all the cars from a lot because they don't want people to think there's a strict policy. "It's kind of like fishing, you want to keep some bait out there," Dan said. "But when the money's tight, people take every car they can."
Selling the Cars
Dan told us that most people would come and pay for their cars at the impound lot, unless the cars were in really bad condition. "Sometimes you'd have a fairly new car and under weird circumstances the people didn't come to claim the actual nice cars," he added. "But it's pretty rare that the cars were nice."
He told us that when the smart tow truck companies impound a car, they write down the VIN and the license plate number, then call the DMV and put a lien on that owner for the amount of money it costs to store the car. "Other tow truck companies might just sell the car off or just apply for the title and sell it off and get what money they can for it," he said.
We asked him what the company he worked for did in these cases. "If someone offered them cash for the car they just kind of unloaded it off to them." He said they didn't get in trouble for that because, "They had a connection up at the DMV, a lady was making titles for them."
By law, the towing companies are supposed to wait 45 days before they apply for the title at the DMV. "But you know, it varies," Dan said.
The Dangers of the Job
No one likes having their car towed, especially when you're actually there to see it happen. Some of Dan's co-workers have been shot at, one of his friends had his face slashed with a J-hook and Dan himself had an instance where a group of guys got a little more than angry at him for towing a car.
He and his co-worker were patrolling an apartment community and got out to determine what cars needed to be towed. "We kind of walked into a group of people who saw that we had our company tow truck shirts on and a friend got into a little bit of an altercation with them." Dan tried to stop the situation from escalating, but it didn't work out the way he wanted it to. "I was trying to tell everyone to not worry about it and go home, but when I wasn't looking I got a baseball bat to my face."
The guys who attacked Dan knocked out several of his teeth and then ran into an apartment building. "At first I was a in a little bit of a shock because my teeth were busted out," he said. "But then I think the adrenaline kind of kicked in and they obviously realized they had made a mistake and ran into an apartment." Dan then pinned their car in with his tow truck so they couldn't leave and waited for the police to show up. We asked Dan if he quit after a day like that, but he said he worked there for another two years.
Just Part of the Job
Even with all the angry people and potentially dangerous encounters, Dan said that there can be good money in towing cars. Drivers are paid by the number of cars they bring in. Some nights drivers can bring home $700, he said For some people, the risk is just part of the job and it doesn't deter them at all. Dan's friend who was slashed in the face six years ago is still towing to this day. It's not that they want people to be mad at them or that they particularly enjoy the dangerous encounters, Dan said matter-of-factly, "Some people just tow cars."
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