Undercover investigation reveals thieves able to steal cars with help of unsuspecting tow companies

7NEWS tested tow companies after December theft

DENVER - Thieves are able to steal cars with the help of unsuspecting tow truck companies and 7NEWS found the loophole will remain wide open.

With little to no proof, 7NEWS discovered anyone can have a car towed to them without verifying they have any connection or ownership to the vehicle.

In an undercover investigation, 7NEWS was able to have multiple tow truck companies tow a vehicle from a residential neighborhood and bring it to a waiting CALL7 producer, with few questions asked.

In December, 7NEWS showed exclusive surveillance video of a tow truck towing a custom 1988 Chevy Caprice from outside of a Denver home. The resident reported the vehicle stolen.  Denver Police and Denver Public Works both confirmed the agencies did not have the vehicle towed.

After airing three stories, trying to identify the tow truck, the driver came forward and revealed someone called to have the car towed to a neighborhood in downtown Denver. According to the tow ticket, the person who called for the tow gave the name "Jason Whitten" and paid cash at the destination.

About two weeks after the tow, Denver Police arrested Sedrick Bowers and charged him with motor vehicle theft. Bowers is now serving 12 years in prison for stealing the Chevy Caprice.

The tow truck driver was not charged and the company did not receive any violation.

The Public Utilities Commission regulates tow truck companies when the tow is "non-consensual." When a driver calls a tow company directly, it's considered a "consensual" tow and is not regulated with detailed rules by the PUC.

A non-consensual tow typically involves a car being towed from private property. When this happens, the PUC regulations requires authorization from:

-Law enforcement

- Vehicle's registered owner

- Authorized operator of the vehicle

- Authorized agent of the owner

- Property owner

In our first test, CALL7 producer Michael de Yoanna called for a car to be towed from a Stapleton neighborhood to downtown Denver.

He was able to request the tow with only his first name, phone number, vehicle description, pickup address, drop-off address and agreement to meet the driver and pay cash at the drop-off location.

When the car arrived at the drop-off location, he paid $100 cash and the driver unhooked the vehicle.

7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger approached the driver after he unhooked the car.

"Excuse me, sir? Do you know whose vehicle this is?" asked Zelinger.

"Right there," said the tow truck driver while pointing to our CALL7 producer.

"Did you verify the owner of the car before you picked it up and towed it?" asked Zelinger.

"He's right there," said the tow truck driver, again pointing at our CALL7 producer.

"Did he tell you he was the owner of the car?" asked Zelinger.

"Are you the owner?" the tow truck driver asked our CALL7 producer.

Our producer shook his head, "no."

"Whose car is it?" the tow truck driver asked.

"He just told you it's not his car, but you towed it. Is that legal?" Zelinger asked.

"He paid cash. You got to call my boss,"  the tow truck driver said.

"It's OK to tow anybody's car even if it's not yours if you pay cash?" asked Zelinger.

"It was cleared with the office, not me," said the tow truck driver.

About 20 minutes after the car was unhooked, the owner of the tow company contacted us and agreed to be interviewed.

"My driver called me and said, 'Hey, Channel 7's here,' so I said, 'OK, let me give them a call," said tow company owner Don Heald.

7NEWS is not identifying the tow company because it did not violate current law.

"How do you know the car you're picking up belongs to the person who called for it?" asked Zelinger.

"We don't," said Heald.

"Should you?" asked Zelinger

"Sure, ideally we should. There's a lot of different scenarios out there," said Heald.

He described a scenario where a University of Colorado student is driving her stepfather's car, when it breaks down. He then asked what is he supposed to do if she has a different last name than what is on the registration?

"Are you going to leave a consumer stranded on the side of the road, saying, 'Can't help you?'"Heald asked. "If tow companies have to arrive on scene, have the registered owner present with the vehicle every single time, show their driver's license, show their registration, in order for the tow company to tow the vehicle, there's not going to be a whole lot of vehicles towed."

"Did you have permission from the owner or authorized operator or authorized agent of the owner?" asked Zelinger.

"Absolutely. Right there. What we were given is what we used to tow that vehicle," said Heald referring to the tow ticket the tow company filled out.

"What's Michael's last name?" asked Zelinger.

"I have no idea. It's just Michael at 720-xxx-xxxx," said Heald.

"Where does he live?" asked Zelinger.

"I have no idea, I'm assuming this location address," said Heald.

"Shouldn't you know, even his last name, before you do a tow?" asked Zelinger.

"Even on the motor clubs we don't get first names, we get Mr. and Mrs.," said Heald.

"Just someone on the phone who said, 'My name is Michael, I have a car that needs to be towed,' that's authorized permission from the owner?" asked Zelinger.

"As the rules stand now, to my knowledge, yes, verbal. Somebody calls, then yes," said Heald. "This was a request tow by what we believed -- by what we were led to believe to be the owner of that vehicle."

"Why were you led to believe he was the owner?" asked Zelinger.

"Because he told us he was. He said he needed a tow. We assumed that he was the owner of that vehicle," said Heald.

"That does not make him authorized to have the vehicle towed then, does it?" asked Zelinger.

"No, not in this case," said Heald. "If you can point out to where we've done something wrong, bring it to my attention. I'll make changes immediately, effective immediately," said Heald.

7NEWS tested another tow company. This time, our CALL7 producer was asked his last name. However, the result was the same. The vehicle was towed from a Centennial neighborhood to Downtown Denver without verifying any proof of connection to the vehicle.

"Hi there, I'm Marshall from Channel 7. Did you do anything to verify that he is the owner of that car before you towed it?" asked Zelinger.

The tow truck driver did not answer.

"Did you ever verify who the owner was or that he was the owner?" asked Zelinger.

The driver then started to pull away as Zelinger asked, "Does it matter who owns a car before you tow it?"

"I've never seen a state law or a rule that says before a tow company can tow a vehicle -- that's not a non-consent, that's a consent tow -- that the owner has to be on scene and has to prove that they actually, in fact, own that vehicle," said Heald.

"Because Michael was not the owner of the vehicle, wasn't it a non-consent tow?" asked Zelinger.

"No, it was not a non-consent tow," said Heald. "We do our due diligence to make sure that we're doing the job right and we're out there to help people. We're not out there to steal cars and that's not what we done today."

We took our findings to PUC director Doug Dean.

"Have we revealed a gray area?" Zelinger asked.

"No, I don't think you have at all because what you had is a consensual tow and you were showing an instance where someone could abuse that consensual tow to commit a felony," said Dean. "It's already a felony to steal a car, so there's nothing gray about that."

"Sight unseen. No extra proof, no license, no registration, no insurance, no nothing?" asked Zelinger.

"Yes, exactly, because it would be a huge burden for consumers if they had to prove that," said Dean.

Dean also pointed out common examples that would become hardships for drivers in need of a tow.

He described a businessman who gets a ride to work after his car breaks down. The man then calls a tow company from the office, wanting his car towed from his home to a repair shop. If ownership proof were required, he said the man would have to pay for the tow truck driver to drive to his office, so he could provide proof.

"If we were to impose those rules on the towing industry, it's only going to unnecessarily burden consumers and cost them more money, and the criminals out there are not going to abide by the rules anyway," said Dean.

"It doesn’t matter what types of rules or regulations a regulatory agency instills or implements on a tow company, you're never going to stop illegal activity. You're always going to have criminals," said Heald. "I think it's a good idea to require the proof and we do our due diligence, but there are those times where you just absolutely can't do it."

7NEWS also learned tow truck companies are not allowed to run license plates or vehicle identification numbers like a police officer.

"We can't just arbitrarily just run a plate or VINs by using that system or we've committed a felony," said Heald. "And if we call law enforcement and say, 'Hey, this is Don from (tow company), can you run this plate because I need to make sure it belongs to Michael?' They're going to say, 'No.'"

Tow truck companies that knowingly and intentionally tow a vehicle in violation of PUC rules can be fined up to $1,100.

"On the example you showed me, they were under the impression it was a consensual tow. There was no intent to commit a crime, so it's highly unlikely that they would face any charges," said Dean.

The vehicle in our undercover investigation belonged to a co-worker who knew how the vehicle was being used.

The PUC does not plan on discussing any new regulations as a result of our investigation.

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