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Tow costs come at too high a price

The city of Portland has just undertaken to create some rules for the out-of-control towing industry. The Oregon Consumer League supports the proposed regulations because we get calls like these:

• The woman on the phone was crying. She worked in a nursing home, earning low wages, and after work one day stopped off to see a co-worker's new baby. She parked in her friend's parking spot at the apartment building. She went up for five minutes, she told me, and when she came down, a tow truck was starting to move her car.

She explained that she had parked in her friend's spot, but the tow operator couldn't have cared less. The $200 fine grew to $270 Ñ a week's salary Ñ because she yelled at the tow operator.

• An executive was in Portland to work on expanding her company into Oregon. She was already doing business in a dozen states, including Washington, California, New York and Wisconsin. She was meeting with a member of our board, who was in the running to head up the Oregon operation.

During dinner, she noticed her car was being towed. With difficulty, she found out that the car was being towed to a lot several miles away. She took a cab there and then learned that she was expected to pay $200 in tow charges, an extra fee for after-hours operation, a storage charge and a gate-opening fee, bringing the total to more than $300.

The result: a canceled deal. She will not bring her company to Oregon.

In a nearly identical incident, a Seattle-based company also canceled plans to expand into Oregon when the executive's car was towed during crucial business negotiations.

The problem is growing as tow companies get more aggressive about profits. They have added fees, including those mentioned above.

The problems arose during the deregulation boom of President Bill Clinton, who dismantled the Interstate Commerce Commission. The agency regulated both the tow companies and the moving and storage industry. Now there is no federal and almost no state regulation of the companies. The sky is the limit, and the poor suffer disproportionately.

The industry argues that it's unfair to regulate a free market. But there's nothing free about having your car towed against your will.

People who live in apartments or mobile home parks Ñ half of all Americans Ñ are especially at risk. Their friends and relatives often have no place to park when they visit. Many apartment complexes have signed agreements with tow companies that allow trucks to cruise their parking lots and tow any car that looks like it does not belong there.

On Sunday mornings, I pick up a disabled woman to take her to church. The woman has trouble walking. I used to park in the lot and walk quickly to her apartment. The entire process took less than five minutes.

But parking signs went up recently, and now I have to park hundreds of feet away. I walk to her apartment, wait for her, bring her to the parking lot, then go get my car. It's the same on the way home.

Calls from consumers complaining about tows usually increase this time of year, when friends and relatives visit during the holidays.

It's time that the city of Portland put an end to these abuses.

Jason Reynolds is executive director of the Oregon Consumer League, based in Northeast Portland. The group's Web site is www.orconsumer.org. He lives in Southwest Portland.