Ottawa's 'Wild West' towing industry must change, officer says

A veteran Ottawa police officer is calling for licensing of tow truck drivers and greater oversight of the industry in Ottawa following another complaint about high storage fees.

Police Sgt. Chris Montague says he gets daily complaints about exorbitant fees

A woman is accusing Ottawa United Towing of not answering her calls about her damaged vehicle and then charging her nearly $3,000 in storage fees. The company blames her insurance company. (CBC)

A veteran police officer is calling for licensing of tow truck drivers and greater oversight of the industry in Ottawa following another complaint about exorbitant storage fees.

Sgt. Chris Montague, a 21-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service, runs the city's vehicle impound lot.

He's watched the towing industry closely throughout his career and said he gets daily calls from people requesting police assistance over the fees charged by private towing contractors.

Montague said it's time to bring law and order to what he calls towing's "Wild West."

His call comes after one woman was handed a bill of nearly $3,000 for storage fees she said she shouldn't have to pay.

Judy McDougall says her Volvo SUV was towed after a crash last month. By the time she was able to track it down, she was on the hook for $2,900. (Stu Mills/CBC)

'My car was stolen'

Judy McDougall tried for days without success to reach Ottawa United Towing, the tow truck company that removed her Volvo SUV from the scene of a crash on Feb. 7, she said.

McDougall's vehicle had been struck by another car pulling out of a gas station. 

Ottawa United Towing arrived at the scene even before police, she said, and offered to take her SUV to a body shop the next morning — even though Ottawa bylaws state tow trucks can't park within 100 metres of a crash. (On Ontario highways, tow truck operators can't solicit their services within 200 metres of a crash.)

McDougall agreed, but by the morning of Feb. 8, her Volvo hadn't shown up at the garage. And early the following week, she sensed there was a problem.

For more than a week, McDougall said, she tried contacting Ottawa United Towing owner Jason Ishraki by phone and email. She reached out to her city councilor, Tim Tierney, and to her MPP, Nathalie Des Rosiers, for help — but her vehicle remained in the company's yard.

What they do ... should be treated as criminal.- Judy McDougall

The retired mechanical engineer and her husband kept a spreadsheet tracking their 26 attempts to reach the company.

"In my mind, at that point, my car was stolen. It was gone," McDougall said.

She tried to get police involved, urging them to investigate it as a stolen vehicle — but police told her it wasn't a criminal matter, she said.

When the towing company answered her calls more than a week after the crash, she was informed she faced a bill of $2,900 for storage in a yard, she said.

The car was delivered to an autobody shop on Feb. 22.

"What they do ... should be treated as criminal," McDougall said.

Judy McDougall's Volvo was damaged in a collision in early February. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Not the only incident

McDougall isn't alone.

During the September 2018 tornadoes in Ottawa and Gatineau, Ontario-based Onroute Towing & Recovery towed Richard Dumont's SUV without his knowledge or permission.

The vehicle was taken to a field 35 kilometres from his home, and his insurance company was billed $1,800 to release it.

In March 2017, an Ottawa couple was billed more than $4,000 to have their car towed from the scene of a collision, only to see it held "hostage" until the matter was resolved.

CBC News called Ottawa United Towing to interview owner Ishraki about McDougall's experience, but received no response.

When CBC News showed up in person, Ishraki blamed the delay on McDougall's insurance company. He then ordered CBC off the property, and another person threatened to smash a reporter's camera.

'A free-for-all'

Montague said there's little protection for Ottawa drivers from predatory and exorbitant storage fees.

And he believes policies enacted in the Greater Toronto Area — including licensing, fixed towing rates and other strict controls — have pushed some operators east into the looser, more lucrative Ottawa market, he said.

"It's the wild west out there ... it's just a free-for-all," he said.

Ottawa does not require tow trucks to be licensed, but more than a dozen other municipalities in Ontario do.

Montague is now calling for tow operator licensing and what he calls a "tow rotation" — a schedule of eligible operators set out by police.

'It's ridiculous'

Insurance Bureau of Canada spokesperson Pete Karageorgos blames a regulatory vacuum at the municipal level and a lack of enforcement of provincial towing laws.

While the industry doesn't track the effect of inflated storage fees on overall insurance prices, a 2012 study suggested insurance fraud of all kinds added about $236 to each policy in Ontario, he said.

"Insurance companies have the added costs of trying to fight what seem to be — in some cases — illegitimate and illegal charges through the courts," Karageorgos said. 

"It's ridiculous, bordering on criminal."