City towing program steers accident victims into big body shop fees

“We regulate the tow fee, but when it comes to the storage fees, preservations fees, I understand there are administration fees, we don't regulate those in the body shops," said Steve Baum, who oversees the towing program for San Antonio Police Department. (SBG Photo)

It may be the most expensive parking space in San Antonio: $500 to keep your car overnight. That's what some body shops charge if your vehicle gets towed into their shop. A News 4 San Antonio Trouble Shooters investigation found the city's towing program may be leading people into that trap.

Police policy states if they have to remove your car from a roadway after a crash you get to choose where its towed. But we found that policy also encourages car owners to choose from a pre-approved list of body shops and storage lots. Once they have your car, many of them tack on huge fees to release it.

Bill Terrazas says he’s angry about what happened after his truck was damaged in an accident last June. Police on the scene followed standard procedure and called a tow truck from one of the four towing companies that have a contract with the city.

Terrazas told the tow truck driver he wanted the truck taken to a body shop he'd used before.

“He said, ‘Well, we can't take it there because it's not on this list,’" Terrazas said.

That list, which we obtained through an open records request, has the names of collision centers and dealerships that have agreed to pay the towing company. Terrazas says he was told if he wanted his car taken to his preferred body shop, he would have to pay for the tow.

“You have to pay $188 up front. And if you take it to these other shops, the charges will be paid by them and you don't have to worry about that," Terrazas said.

It sounds like good deal for accident victims, who've just been through a traumatic experience. It was enough to convince Terrazas to have his truck towed to a shop on the list.

But the next day he got a big shock.

“They charged a mark-up of $235 for the tow, they tacked on $500 admin fee and a $75 preservation fee," Terrazas told us.

In an effort to avoid the $188 up front charge, he feels he was steered to a shop that charged him, once all the fees were added up, $985 just to release his car so he could take it to his shop of choice.

Carlos Salazar is another car owner who complained to the city. He was especially upset about the $500 administrative fee immediately tacked on to city tows.

“That administration fee for having it in a dirt field to me is not fair, and not right," Salazar said.

Jaie Avila asked the San Antonio Police Department if it was aware some of the body shops on the city approved list are charging big administration fees to release a vehicle after an accident.

“Yes," said Steve Baum, who oversees the towing program for SAPD. Baum says the police department has no control over what body shops charge.

“Do you have some responsibility for making sure the companies on the drop list are dealing fairly with people?" Avila asked.

“We regulate the tow fee, but when it comes to the storage fees, preservations fees, I understand there are administration fees, we don't regulate those in the body shops," Baum replied.

One of the body shops that has charged a $500 administrative fee agreed to talk to us. Manuel Rubio is the owner of miracle body and paint.

Rubio says many of the cars the city brings him are uninsured or abandoned. However, under the agreement, he has to take them and pay for the tow. Rubio says administrative fees offset that expense as well as his overhead.

While giving our Trouble Shooters crew a tour of his facility, Rubio pointed to a line of wrecked cars in one of his outdoor lots.

“We have 21 in here that we've paid for and there's no one that we can get that money back from. That's just part of being on the city agreement, on the city list," Rubio said.

“Isn't that your problem?” Avila asked. “Why should our viewers have to pay for an administration fee for abandoned vehicles that you asked the city to bring here?”

“We don't charge our customers, we charge their insurance companies," Rubio said.

Bill Terrazas' insurance company did reimburse him the fees to get his car released. But the retired insurance adjuster says customers still pay a price.

“These practices of tacking on fees it just increases the cost of insurance rates and the public ultimately pays," Terrazas complained.

So what should you do?

If you don't want to pay for the police tow up front, or your preferred shop isn't open, tell the tow truck driver to take your car to one of the two city storage facilities at the very bottom of the list. Their fees are regulated and your insurance company can move your vehicle to a body shop later without paying a big administrative fee.

Here’s the city approved list of body shops, dealerships and storage lots we referenced in the story:

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