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The Most Notorious Towing Company in Chicago Gets the Boot (wsj.com)
125 points by petethomas 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments





The ICC investigation, over the course of a year, identified over 800 violations, most involving making unauthorized tows --- often from places they had formerly had contracts but no longer did, or places where they claimed they had contracts but where no contract was on file with the ICC. Which squares with the general take on Lincoln Towing, which is that they're just a bunch of people in tow trucks looking to tow as many cars as they can.

Lincoln's defense: the ICC never told them they were violating the law.

What I learned from reading all the ICC filings: in Chicago, you need to file different contracts to tow on a "patrol" basis (where the tow truck spots the unauthorized car) vs. a request basis, where the customer asks you to have a car towed. Lincoln Towing didn't care about the distinction; the ICC did.

Also, they had drivers without licenses.

Honestly, I doubt the other Chicago towing companies are much better.

Their Wikipedia page is pretty funny; it's pretty clear that someone with an interest in Lincoln Towing has authored chunks of it.


Just allowing a towing companies to "patrol" would seem to invite bad choices.

After some rounds of bad towing companies / behavior Minneapolis passed some city ordinances that limited towing. There still are bad actors but a lot of the easier methods they can use are gone now.


Privatized law enforcement with a financial incentive to “find crimes”? What could go wrong?

I got towed in Minneapolis on a Sunday because the Wisconsin DMV put a flag in the computer system for my license plate. The flag was to remind the Wisconsin DMV to make sure my address was updated next time I came in. The towing company refused to release my car until I was able to get the Wisconsin DMV on the phone with them (Monday afternoon) to verify that my registration was paid up (it was) and I still had to pay the impounding fee (~$200) and had to take 8 hours of vacation because I couldn't drive home Sunday night like I had planned and thus couldn't go to work on Monday.

That is what privatization of law enforcement with a financial incentive to “find crimes” leads to.


File a lawsuit in small claims court for your time and the fee. Not only do you get paid, you discourage this type of behavior. Disclaimer: IANAL, but I've successfully sued towing companies.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."


Placing the burden of time and attention onto the one-time victim to ensure that chronic bad actors don't continue is not the solution that you are looking for.

What is then ?

I don’t mean to advocate vigilantism, but I’m going to:

1. Step one, file claim in small claims court, get your money back / recorded action against the towing company / etc.

2. Carry a tyre valve removal tool with you. Whenever you see one of the offending companies tow trucks parked, and either unoccupied, or the driver is distracted, remove the valves from as many of the trucks tyres as you can.

This shouldn’t damage the tyres, unless they are left deflated for a long period, and it’s extremely inconvenient.


So now I need to carry both a mental and a physical burden, as well as risk jail time? Neat.

Guerilla style. I like it.

Have the individuals involved charged with auto theft and have the entire company seized under civil forfeiture since they are making money off of auto theft. Basically give the company the same treatment that a poor minority would get by the legal system if they tried the same.

Also allow the use of force in defense of property wrongfully seized.


> Also allow the use of force in defense of property wrongfully seized.

Will not end well. The more aggressive towing companies in Atlanta send their operators out in pairs, wearing mirrored sunglasses, body armor and carrying sidearms like they're mercenaries. You're outmanned and outgunned.

It's like they know they're engaged in business that might upset people or something.

The police, with all their training, still shoot civilians accidentally. I really wouldn't want to test the how-not-to-shoot-civilians training of some wannabe-Blackwater towing goon.


So they basically have an armed militia stealing from civilians, with the protection of the government. How did we handle this last time?

Voting for someone who is willing to take this battle at a higher level?

There is no one running on such a platform. Because this is not one of the Big Issues pushed on us by mass media, it does not inspire the electorate to act. If you're not promising handouts for people who identify with your in-group, you're not getting anywhere in politics.

I wouldn't expect mass media to focus on local ordinances.

If you've ever been to a city council town hall, or read a local newspaper in an area where it's a problem, this is brought up regularly.

You get coverage of an example of illegal activity in the news: https://6abc.com/news/alleged-tow-trap-caught-on-camera-in-s...

Response from local politicians: https://www.phillymag.com/citified/2016/05/24/illegal-towing...

Politicians seeking input from their constituents: http://phlcouncil.com/help-stop-predatory-towing

Leading to a new law: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2017/01/26/kenney-bill-illega...

With enforcement of the law: https://patch.com/pennsylvania/philadelphia/george-smith-tow...

I don't see any handouts or special interest groups here.


It has worked in the past. Minneapolis has changed a lot of ordinances to restrict towing.

You do realize that I do not live in Minnesota, and neither do I live in Minneapolis. Thus, I have no representative to contact there.

> the Wisconsin DMV put a flag in the computer system for my license plate. The flag was to remind the Wisconsin DMV to make sure my address was updated next time I came in

I will assume that a flagged car will always be impounded when found. I guess that's the point of flagging it.

If your car was impounded because you were flagged without breaking any rules maybe you can address that somehow. Since your registration was paid up, flagging you car seems excessive, especially when it was just as a "reminder". There must be a way people don't end up in this situation for a "reminder" flag. So you can work on your side to make sure others don't get flagged unless their car really needs to be impounded.

Unless you were you supposed to update your address and check in with them to remove that flag, especially before leaving the state. In which case some more care from your side is required.

I'm not saying "privatizing law enforcement" is good. To a hammer everything looks like a nail and when you pay that private company "per nail" you can bet that's what they'll find at every corner. But you can always grab the issue from your end and try to do something about it. Otherwise next time you might as well have the Police impound your car and pay them for the ride. Same difference.


It has worked in the past. Minneapolis has changed a lot of ordinances to restrict towing.

Who are you going to vote for? In the US to get elected for any public office you need external funding, and to raise that you need to demonstrate that you are willing to return favours. No, the swamp isn't going to support those who would drain it.

At the city level you don't need much money. Even state politics often don't need a lot of money. National level does money though.

Agreed in general, although given the reputation of Chicago politics, I’m not sure that would have been the case here.

It has worked in the past. Minneapolis has changed a lot of ordinances to restrict towing.

That just sounds like the easy excuse honestly.

What exactly does the election process mean to you then? What value do you see in it if not something like this?

You have 2 choices. The first is the "always do it yourself" fix to other people's mistakes or intentional trespasses. The second is to have the "people in charge" do it for you in a sustainable manner, at scale.

The second option might include repeated litigation. I have no idea how it would work but making them pay more than they earn every time is a strong deterrent.


The election process can be summed up roughly as "Heads, I win; Tales, you lose."

You win the game by controlling who gets to run as a candidate. That way, no matter who wins individually, you still end up with a majority in the legislature who will support policies friendly to you. And you don't need 100% control; some dissenting candidates need to be allowed, to provide an veneer of legitimacy to the process, but not enough to actually sway the votes in Congress.


So many complaints about the system! Call your alderman, get it raised at city council. Local government can be responsive. Band with some others, hire a lawyer. Organize.

Is a functioning democracy a right or a duty?

Or I guess you can just complain and post comments.


This is a national issue. You'd literally be fighting the rest of the country (who are apparently fine with it as it is) every step of the way.

You do realize that I do not live in Minnesota, and neither do I live in Minneapolis. Thus, I have no representative to contact there.

It has worked in the past. Minneapolis has changed a lot of ordinances to restrict towing.

I'm fairly sure in Minneapolis that they CAN'T tow because of short term registration issues due to city ordnance prohibiting just that. Might be worth reporting it to someone on the city council... provided you have time left.

The city council has shown interest in restricting towing (has done it) and just recently they had one of them on TV talking about towing bad actors.

There is a lot of cynicism further down the chain but it is just BS by people who don't know anything, as at least in Minneapolis politicians have taken action regarding towing.


> and I still had to pay the impounding fee (~$200)

Is that even legal?


San Francisco towed my car and then lost it for 3 months. I called repeatedly and they insisted they didn't have it, and that I file a police report for it having been stolen. I got another car to replace it.

3 months later, Erin found it, while taking a walk past the impound lot on Harrison. They made her pay all 3 months of impound fees.


I had my car stolen in San Francisco and had to pay to get it out. The city contracts out towing services and the contract doesn't say they can't charge for stolen cars, so...

The city made an effort to change this a few years back but stopped when they realized that they would have to pay the towing company a bunch of money from loss of revenue with the modified contract.


If you made a police report, make sure to amend it with any damages as well as towing fees suffered in case they catch the perpetrator. This will give you a basis for remediation.

It turns out that car theft is an extremely low priority class of crimes in the Bay Area.

That's so frustrating!! Sorry you had to go through that :( There should be an easy way to dispute that sort of thing that doesn't require you to take a day off work. There seems to be a lack of checks and balances in US that leads to all sorts of bs scenarios. It's one of the reasons I don't miss the country.

It turns out to be very difficult to sue a municipality. They need to be on the hook for a lot more than towing fees to make it cost effective.

Wow, that's $6500.

Doesn't matter. I don't live in Minneapolis so to contest it I would have had to take another day off of work and spend a significant amount of time and money driving there to get $200 back.

Man that's bullshit. We need an agency / taskforce that can investigate that sort of thing and bring swift justice / reform without making the little guy suffer through the court system.

They used to be called journalists.

I actually just saw a local news report on someone breaking towing rules in Minneapolis a few nights ago. They got some city council people on TV even.

I mean a task force with authority to act quickly with incentives aligned purely with the average citizen. Something that doesn't require me to wait - they take it upon themselves to serve justice.

Robin Hood?

It would help to be able to sue someone in small claims court for free, and through the mail or entirely online. Having to take time off from work that you can't take and pay money you don't have, in order to get $200 back, are just enough little barriers to prevent people from using the legal system that their taxes pay for.

The silver lining is that if enough people actually did sue in small claims court, it bleeds the beast in terms of forcing the company to spend time in court for each infraction.

If 100 plaintiffs sue 1 defendant, each plaintiff has to appear once. The defendant (or their paid agent) gets dragged in 100 times.


Various industry Ombudsman’s in Australia do an alright (but not perfect) job of this, for certain industries (like telco). And the ACCC is scary, too. I wish they worked quicker however, and were expanded to more industries.

It shouldn't be. If anything, it should be treated as theft and the towing company treated accordingly.

One of my first jobs had a client who ran speed cameras for a state. On top of nothing being secure the guys there said to me that the amount of "traffic" always seemed to increase, I felt dirty just talking to them. One dude I ran into later at another company said he started looking for a new job as soon as he figured out their game.

The company got in trouble supposedly due to anonymous tipsters who knew some inside info to some news stations (for the record no it wasn't me, I didn't have anything).

At least some folks made good choices.


What do you mean by traffic always increasing? Im not really following what you are saying...

I believe parent implies that with the increase of traffic naturally comes more speeding infractions that are then reported by those guy. I suppose they get a cut for each ticket so it's in their interest to "notice" an increase of traffic. Or to make it up.

I was involved in some networking so we were talking about how much traffic there was. The "traffic" was directly proportional to the number of tickets and processing them... traffic up, # of tickets up.

There's history here.

Note: sheriffs of London paid 300 £s per year, hoping to make a profit from the fines they collected.

A labourer's annual wages at the time were 2 £/yr.

A master carpenter might earn 20-40 £/yr, depending on days worked.

A kitchen servant, 2 - 4 shillings/yr.

In: "List of price of medieval items"

http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html


In ancient Rome, the right to collect taxes in some provinces was contracted out. If you won the contract, you had to provide Rome with at least the amount you bid for the contract, but anything you could manage to collect beyond that was yours to keep. And if people failed to pay their taxes to you, you often had the right to enslave them in order to collect.

Hence why they were so despised at the time of the New Testament.

If anyone is interested in some of the roman dynamics of the time I highly recommend Paul Maier's historical fiction on Pontius Pilate: https://www.amazon.com/Pontius-Pilate-Paul-L-Maier/dp/082544.... (his book on Nero is great too)


Further, to progress beyond quaestor (tax collector) in Roman politics a politician had to put on public games and such to win popularity (as an aedile). Where did those funds come from? Yep, excess taxes collected.

It's not unlike winning friends and donors for campaign funds by playing nice with wealthy special interests as a modern politician in order to progress up the ladder to national office and then continue to win re-election.


Do you have any (quick, readily accessible) references on this?

Thanks.


Wikipedia is a decent starting place:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publican


I bet you could do a decent job regulating it if they required photo documentation of the parking job and any posted signage to be submitted to the police with each tow. Somebody get on an app for that.

There's no way a company like this can piss off so many people for 50+yr without some serious political connections.

In a corrupt city if you piss of people with connections you get run out of business unless you also have connections.


Lived in Chicago for eight years.

Owned a small business that was trying to get work with a city agency.

Got denied to be an approved vendor when I applied. We were told they would reconsider in two years.

A client of mine was wealthy and well connected. He was trying to convince me to let him invest in my business. I told him about being denied.

He made a phone call on our behalf to city hall. We got a call from the city agency within an hour that we were now an approved vendor.

Moral of the story. Chicago is corrupt AF.


I hope you let him invest.

Why, to keep the nepotism thriving?

I've only lived in the city a couple years, very few of the people I've met own cars, and I still had heard of them and their notorious practices. There had to have been some corrupt connection for them to operate as long as they did.

you mean unless you pay your connections.

This kind of thing is a problem anywhere that there's not aggressive regulation and Seattle is pretty bad. At one point a partner was towed for parking in a handicap spot and she had handicap plates and a handicap placard. Similarly she was towed from in front of our house for not moving the car very frequently and towed for parking in a part-time lane at a forbidden time... before the forbidden time started. Once you're towed they got a motivation to up the fees by keeping your car as long as possible, so you're likely to run into very short retrieval hours (closed on the weekend) and fees over $200/day. It's a pretty effective racket as long as the city goes along with it and they're getting paid.

Regulation? It sounds like there was plenty of regulations already in place, they clearly violated them as was decided by the agency. They found 800 violations according to another comment. What more do you need?

The problem was they weren't enforced. As others mentioned in this thread, you can only operate this way as a business with political connections.

Regulations in themselves are never sufficient. They have to be practical and their utility measured based on the reality of the efficacy in real life. A hundred more rules for customers/businesses won't solve the deficiencies of government inefficiencies, corruption, and cronyism.


[flagged]


I think op just meant that it was towed for an arbitrary time limit that was not defined. If they said a vehicle must be moved at least once a week there would be no complaint or confusion in the situation. I am down voting your comment because name calling did not add to the discussion for me.

In Seattle, vehicles parked on the street must be moved at least every 72 hours.

And when you work nights and the meter person who tracks what's parked where works days that's basically the same as not moving your vehicle.

On residential streets they barely enforce this - it's complaint driven and they put a giant notice on your windshield for 48 hours before towing.

How do you go on vacation?

Obviously, private parking lots don't usually have this kind of rules, and you can leave your car as long as you want, assuming of course that you pay for it. If you have your own private parking spot, you can also leave it there. This 72 hour rule only applies to public street parking.

I don't know about Seattle but in NYC there are street-cleaning rules that prevent you from leaving a car in one spot for more than several days, so that a street cleaner can come through.

More residential areas don't have this, though. Some homes have driveways and some buildings have garages. There's always a paid garage nearby or airport parking.


People have posted pics on twitter of them still towing. At what point does it cross over into unlawful possession or theft?

I assume they're just keep spooling up another LLC and continuing.


Vehicle based grifts are tough to deal with, especially with it being so trivial and cheap to reincorporate.

A friend in the business took one of the Chinatown busses off the road after they pulled up for inspection with the rear brakes on fire with bald tires and no mirrors. The unlicensed driver ran off into a cornfield and vanished.

He pulled it off again a week later in the same condition, with another LLC on the side (something like “harmonious dragon 2,llc). That time it was associated with a more serious crime and seized.


Hold up - can you give more detail? I saw a bus on the 101 almost exactly like that a few weeks ago.

The magic of a bus that costs $5 to go a hundred miles away is that it’s probably unsafe.

Chinatown busses in particular are very bad.


They were allowed to remain in operation until they were physically served with the order from the ICC, which might explain that.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edi...

> Then there was poor Peter Salva, a construction worker who in 2015 was doing roof work when he noticed a couple of Lincoln Towing workers hauling away his truck. When he began climbing down, the workers unhooked his ladder. He fell and broke his leg


...this is some straight up gangster behaviour.

That just sounds like good-old attempted murder. I hope the DA pursued it as such.

A folk song about these bastards was written in 1972? How did this take so long? They must have had someone protecting them.

Yep! Steve Goodman's "Lincoln Park Pirates"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dF3q7o8Yjrg

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=9522

    ...
    We break into cars when we gotta
    With pick axe and hammer and saw
    And they said that this garage had no license
    But little care I for the law
    ...
Funny that it's their license that's been revoked in this case.

    ...
    To me way, hay
    Tow them away
    We plunder the streets of your town
    Be it Edsel or Chevy there's no car to heavy
    And no one can make us shut down
    ...
I'll believe it when they're actually gone (and not just reopened under a different name).

But... the city should just disallow coercive towing generally, unless it’s a public safety concern. Ticketing, fine, but roving packs of tow trucks really only add value to the towing companies. Having lived both in a city where it was nigh impossible to get towed and one where I was towed out of my own spot I could notice no difference in parking availability.

Ticketing can also turn in to a "roving packs" situation, by means of misaligned government incentives. At the end of the day, if someone does something wrong we should probably just take the fine and burn it.

Yeah, but at least with a fine you can contest prior to paying. If a car is seized most people don’t have the luxury of being car less for the length of the appeals process.

And the fines keep piling up. And the people who do the appeals know the tow company because they deal with them all the time whereas you're just a random person off the street so the appeal by default is skewed toward their favor.

Exactly this. Towing should never occur unless its blocking traffic or another safety issue, at least for a week after a notice. Nobody should park their car and have it towed the same day.

In Indonesia, this kind of business is well known but in toll roads.

Having your car broken down is the least of your problem. They will come, drag your car to their affiliated workshop, charge you high fees, and then the workshop charges you high fees as well. You can refuse, but it involves lots of persistence.


This is how it works on the Jersey turnpike but the IIRC right to tow people from a particular stretch of road on a particular day of the week is bid on like any other state contract (my details may be a little off but point is you can't call whatever company you want).

Same on New York thruways. Each section is leased to a single tow company that will "cut you a deal" on the tow if you go to their shop for repairs.

This also used to be very common on the GRA, the motorway that runs around Rome (Italy). I was a victim of such a scheme once. If I remember well, the problem was finally solved due to the fact that at some point tow trucks were banned from the GRA altogether.

So what happens when your car breaks down? Do you need to push it yourself?

The tow is managed by your insurer. You get a fixed price or reduced price depending on your insurance. You get a toll free number and usually instructions not to trust random towers you didn’t call for.

My understanding is that official ACI[1] trucks, as opposed to private ones, are still allowed, if your car breaks down on the GRA your insurer will send an ACI truck

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automobile_Club_d%27Italia


In some stretches of highways in India, people will throw nails on road and the only nearby repair shop will be theirs.

That's a world-wide practice, I can assure you of that.

Non-paywall archive version: http://archive.is/SV4UY

Its sad but i dont even need the article anymore. The discussion up to here is easier to read and deeper. Paywall=article title becomes hacker news discussion topic

They're going to be back under a new business name for sure. They're tied into local politics and protected. My friend was a repo man and towed cars, and said lincoln was way worse about vehicles than even his owner's sleazy operation

Just another reason not to own a car in Chicago. I lived there for a few years and it's insane. City car taxes, outrageous parking expenses, high insurance rates, and predatory towing. No thanks. In fact I quit that city altogether and wouldn't care if I never see it again.

No, someone else doing something illegal is NOT a valid reason for me to not legally own something. Sheeple need to pull the wool from their eyes.

I had a tow truck company lie to the attendant and tell him there wasn't a parking pass on the car. The attendant knew me though and told this guy not to tow my car. I bet this happens all the time.

I'll just leave this here... https://i.imgur.com/Pc6gFvN.jpg

My sole interaction with them was a flagrant bribe solicitation. I paid.

Good riddance.


Article behind a paywall. =(

Hopefully they're shut down for good and people went to prison.

My fear is they'll pop back up under a different name and continue the same f*ckery.

That's what a scam auto auction place in South Chicago did. They had numerous BBB complaints and dozens of on-line horror stories.

The state attorney finally shut them down several years ago but it looks like they're back and in the same freakin' building in Harvey IL. Only now they're called First Marshall Auto Auction.

I've seen their ads on craigslist and flag them, but it's like playing whack-a-mole.

https://abc7chicago.com/automotive/bbb-issues-warning-for-fi...


I assume there is some way to pierce the corporate veil and go after owner's private assets if they are continually operating in an illegal manner like this.

RICO violation or something? Of course, it's Chicago so that'd go nowhere fast.

At this point, couldn't all/any metro gov't be considered a RICO violation?

Edit the url to fullwsj.com

How did it take these guys literal decades to get shut down?

Exactly what I was wondering. Looks like it has been going on for more than half a century as per the article.

I won't read paywalled content, but this articles title wins an award for punniness



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