To Lydia and Daniel Wee, heading into Allston for dinner one evening last spring, it looked like a dream come true in a city where it can be hell to park - an almost empty lot close to the restaurant, fronting a nearly deserted strip mall.
Signs warned that parking is for customers only, but there were so many empty spaces. Dinner would only last an hour. And this is Boston, where, when it comes to driving, rules can seem proudly optional.
Wrong move. The Allston strip mall lot has become Boston’s black hole for illegally parked cars - and a cash machine for one local towing company.
The Wees returned to find a crew from Robert’s Towing hauling away their silver Toyota Solara, even after Lydia, 28, sat down in the passenger seat and said she wouldn’t move until police arrived.
“The men then stepped into their truck and began driving off with my wife still halfway in the car and the door still wide [open]!’’ Daniel Wee, 31, wrote in a complaint to the state.
The Wees unwittingly picked perhaps the worst place to park in a city where street spots are painfully limited and snagging one in a private lot sometimes seems like the only solution. It is an inherently risky move - trespassing in fact - but also a risk that varies enormously from lot to lot, a Globe review of city towing records shows.
Some lots are virtual snares, and none more so than the one the Wees wandered into: More than twice as many cars have been towed for illegally using the 63-spot lot shared by a Rite Aid and a Dunkin’ Donuts than at any other address in Boston, according to the Globe review. The second-leading location was the South Bay mall in Dorchester, a vast lot with more than 2,000 parking spots.
Also on the top 10 list of towing hot spots are three other pharmacy parking lots in Allston, South Boston, and the South End; Commercial Wharf West, a block-long private street near the North End; the Whole Foods near the Boston-Brookline border; Blanchard’s liquor store in Allston, a Stop & Shop in Brigham Circle, and a strip mall lot in Fields Corner.
But the extraordinary number of tows from the one small Allston strip mall - roughly 3,550 vehicles over 31 months, generating an estimated $465,000 in cash for Robert’s if they collected $131 per tow - does more than illustrate the tactics of one company.
It casts a light on an industry that in Boston legally impounds roughly 90,000 vehicles a year. Tow companies, nearly all of them privately owned, have almost no government oversight, even though they use heavy equipment to seize private property, carry tools for prying open cars, and often demand cash on the street.
And they aren’t just hauling away vehicles in response to complaints. Outside the Rite Aid in Allston, Robert’s trucks patrol the customer-only parking lot, hiding with their lights off behind a building as they hunt for cars to tow - and the $131 fee that owners must pay to liberate their vehicles from the impound lot.
Disputes about whether someone is a trespasser or a store customer almost always come down to the word of a tow-truck driver against the word of a car owner. But tow-truck drivers have one significant advantage: They have your car.
Robert Kopelman, owner of the towing company, acknowledges that he pays some of his drivers on commission, giving them incentive to patrol the lot at 177 Brighton Ave., where drivers tend to park illegally before heading off to bustling restaurants and bars nearby.
“I know we are the big, bad wolf,’’ Kopelman said, defending the practice. “We tow illegally parked cars. Nobody wants to get towed.’’
Drivers whose cars are hauled away have fewer rights and less legal protection in Massachusetts than in other states.
The state Department of Public Utilities handles many of the consumer complaints about alleged towing abuses, but it has little authority and routinely sides with tow truck companies, according to a review of the department’s complaint files.
Robert’s isn’t the only company to draw complaints. Casey’s Towing seized a gray Dodge Neon in January 2010, allegedly leaving a family with a 2-year-old standing in the 19-degree cold outside Flour Bakery on Farnsworth Street, a private way in South Boston.
It wasn’t the first time.
“Officers have on numerous occasions observed Casey’s Towing[’s] predatory practice of towing vehicles on Farnsworth St.,’’ a Boston police officer wrote in a report included in the complaint filed with the DPU.
Kevin Walsh, owner of Casey’s Towing, said he had no memory of a family left in the cold. Casey’s tow truck drivers are contracted to patrol Farnsworth Street, Walsh said, towing cars that don’t belong.
“I don’t know if that’s predatory,’’ Walsh said.
But Robert’s Towing has been the target of more complaints to the state; grievances to the attorney general’s consumer protection office; gripes to the Better Business Bureau; and negative online reviews than any other tow company in Boston.
At the Allston strip mall last May, a driver from Robert’s Towing forced open a silver Saab 9-3 and, according to a complaint, damaged the door and emergency brake. The Saab’s owner, Benjamin Hale, arrived on the scene and won release of his car by agreeing to pay $131 - more than he should have been charged under state law.
Hale complained, and Robert’s issued a partial refund of $35 but did not address the damage. He may have been entitled to a larger reimbursement, but like most drivers, he was unaware of his rights. Robert’s told regulators that the complaint had been closed, and the state took no further action.
On a Saturday night in August, Globe reporters observed Robert’s tow trucks on patrol, two at a time, in the strip mall parking lot. The trucks drove beside a building, turned off their headlights, and lay in wait for unsuspecting drivers. Robert’s seized three cars in four hours.
The catch included a BMW that a Robert’s tow truck driver forced open to access the emergency brake by inserting a flexible, wire-type tool through the top of the closed passenger side window. On one Saturday in March, records show, Robert’s snagged 23 cars.
“It’s like legal robbery,’’ said Cindy Nguyen, who has owned a hair salon across the street from the parking lot for more than 20 years. “Tow trucks sit there like dogs waiting for a bone.’’
Any time a vehicle is towed in Boston, it must be “cleared’’ by the Police Department to make sure it is not stolen. Before clamping onto cars, tow truck operators are required to call a hot line and report license plates. Dispatchers don’t assess whether the tow was fair; they just check the status and record the information.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Globe requested all the towing data the City of Boston had on file from April 8, 2009, to Oct. 31, 2011. The Globe used the information to build a database that included the time, date, location, and other details of roughly 246,300 vehicles cleared for towing.
Tow companies insist their drivers don’t tow all the vehicles cleared by police. But the data show that the vast majority were seized.
Certain patterns were expected. Towing spiked during snowstorms, when the city removes vehicles from major thoroughfares to make way for plows. Another surge occurred in early April, when the Public Works Department begins its street cleaning program and contracts with private tow companies to haul away cars.
During the 31 months, the Boston Transportation Department impounded about 32,800 cars and trucks for parking in front of a hydrant or in a crosswalk or handicapped space. The Transportation Department, which has a fleet of 27 tow trucks, also clears main arteries where parking is banned during commuting hours, which is why the greatest number of cars were towed between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.
But the overwhelming majority of towing in Boston is done by dozens of privately owned companies.
Private tow companies are authorized to haul away vehicles for Boston police, public works, schools, and the Boston Housing Authority. Towing for the city’s street sweeping program alone accounts for more than a third of towing in the city and is done entirely by private companies.
City contracts can include safeguards for consumers, but the requirements are sometimes ignored by towing firms and government officials. A contract authorizing Robert’s to impound cars from Boston public school parking lots, for example, requires them to take credit cards, something the company has refused to do for those tows. And the schools, for their part, have done nothing to enforce it.
But tow companies are also hired by the owners of parking lots and other private facilities to clear vehicles of trespassers who park illegally.
For Robert’s, the most lucrative work is a mile from its impound yard at the privately owned strip mall in Allston.
The property is owned by a limited liability company whose principals include two prominent developers, according to records at the registry of deeds and the secretary of state.
One of the owners is John L. Hall II, president of Suffolk Downs race track. Another is Richard L. Friedman, whose company transformed the former Charles Street Jail into the luxury Liberty Hotel. Friedman regularly hosted President Clinton and his family at his estate on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1990s.
Neither Hall nor Friedman returned phone messages about the staggering number of vehicles towed from their property. The tenants, Rite Aid and Dunkin’ Donuts, said through spokesmen that they do not request that cars be towed.
On April 23, 2011, Robert’s impounded a dozen cars from the strip mall, including a 1996 Acura that belonged to Hyacinth Leavitt of Fitchburg. Leavitt and her husband chased the tow truck as it drove away.
“At that point we noticed the whole operation going on,’’ Leavitt wrote in a complaint dismissed by state regulators. “Four tow trucks positioned in the back lot ready to do duty; I really hope you will investigate the operations going on at this location. Go and see for yourself the amount of towing going on; Someone is making thousands off this setup every night!’’
Some states have taken significant steps to protect consumers from so-called “patrol towing.’’ The practice allows tow trucks to act as bounty hunters, contracting with parking lot owners to seize cars at will. But in California, Washington, D.C., and other areas, tow truck drivers must receive written authorization from the owner of a parking lot for each individual car they seize.
In New York City, California, and many other locales, a tow truck driver is legally required to release a vehicle if the owner arrives on the scene. In Massachusetts, state law leaves the decision “up to the discretion’’ of the tow truck drivers. They can choose to collect a “drop fee,’’ unhooking the vehicle on the spot for half the price of a $90 tow, plus fees, often required in cash.
“I felt like I was completely at [Robert’s] mercy,’’ Wee, the driver whose wife had the run-in with the driver in the Allston strip mall lot, said in an interview. He ultimately handed over $50 cash for his car but sought recourse by complaining to state regulators. “Robert’s had a different story, so it was my word against theirs. They said there was nothing they could do about it.’’
Across Massachusetts, the state sets maximum fees: $90 per tow, plus a $35-a-day storage fee, a $3-per-mile round-trip charge for all tows over 5 miles, and a fuel surcharge that can add $5 to $6. That means a basic tow will cost roughly $130. The law requires itemized receipts that break down the charges, something that tow companies including Robert’s don’t always do.
Enforcement falls to the DPU.
“We have very, very limited authority,’’ said Ann G. Berwick, chairwoman of the state agency. “Our authority has only to do with fees - that’s it.’’
Complaint records on file with the DPU show that the agency rarely challenges those fees and ignores some of the few regulations it has the authority to enforce. Since the Globe began its towing inquiry, the department said it has begun to make changes to step up enforcement.
In all, Robert’s has had 22 complaints in the last three years.
“It’s pretty damn good for the amount of work we do,’’ Kopelman said. “Twenty [two] complaints over 25,000 tows is a joke.’’
But that is still far more complaints than any other tow company in Boston. Casey’s Towing, for example, had only one complaint in the last three years.
By any measure, Robert’s has drawn more criticism than other firms. Drivers have also turned to the attorney general’s consumer protection division (13 complaints since 2006) or the Better Business Bureau (22 complaints in the last three years).
Robert’s is so aggressive, the records show, that one woman filed a complaint after a tow truck driver hooked up her car as she leaned against it chatting with a friend. A man sued in small claims court after he said Robert’s removed his car from a 15-minute parking spot after just 12 minutes.
Some drivers did more than complain. In May 2004, a 29-year-old Duxbury resident sneaked into the impound lot at Robert’s Towing on Goodenough Street, reclaimed his 1992 Honda Accord, and drove through a wooden gate to escape without paying, according to a lawsuit filed in Brighton District Court. Several others drivers have resorted to the same tactic, small claims court records show, including Charles Tippe, 47, of Providence, whose 1992 Toyota Camry was towed by Roberts in March 2005.
“There was no way in hell I was going to give up even a nickel,’’ said Tippe, who in a recent interview denied smashing through the gate but acknowledged driving off without paying. “They wanted $130 in cash. Can you imagine that?
“I never did pay them,’’ Tippe said. “How do you like that?’’Tom Giratikanon of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.