PHOENIX — A busy March morning at Dawn Hunter's house came to a screeching halt when her teen son said he couldn’t find his Prius.
"You're kidding," Hunter remembered telling her son.
It was no joke. Her son’s car has disappeared.
Two neighbors’ cars were also missing from their parking spots on a residential street near Camelback Road and 40th Street.
Michael Roberson said he first thought his BMW was stolen. He called the Phoenix Police Department.
“They told me that my car was illegally parked on the road after 10 p.m. - that it had been towed,” Roberson said. He said he was “befuddled” since he had parked in the same spot next to his driveway dozens of times.
Phoenix, like many cities in Arizona, requires tow truck drivers to report to police when they take a car without the owner’s consent, including the location and reason for the tow. Police referred Roberson to Metro Towing and Impounds, at 3570 E. Van Buren Street.
First of all, [Metro] wanted to charge us the towing fee to get the car back,” Roberson told ABC15. “Then they said, ‘Okay, maybe it was our mistake.’”
When ABC15 met Metro's owner, Dominick Bova, he told us one of his drivers was supposed to service a new contract for an apartment complex. The complex is also off Camelback Road, but it's eight miles away from Hunter’s and Roberson’s neighborhood.
“When she put it in her GPS, it took her to 38th Street, but the property we picked up was on 38th Avenue,” Bova said. “It just got mixed up.”
Bova said the mix-up had never happened before, and he said he fired the driver.
Metro Towing and Impounds ended up taking all three cars back to the neighborhood at no charge.
Bova says his company is on the up-and-up.
“We have our DPS number; we have our licenses; we have everything that we need,” Bova said. “We're properly insured; the trucks are maintained.”
The ABC15 Investigators had more questions, especially about the tow truck that returned the three cars. A picture taken by Hunter showed that truck did not have an orange Arizona Department of Public Safety tow truck permit decal. The truck does not list the company name on the side, which state code requires of tow trucks for hire. Plus, the USDOT identification number on the side of the truck ties to a company out of North Dakota, not Metro Towing and Impounds.
“This truck is not on the road,” Bova said.
When ABC15 showed Bova the picture of the truck on the road, he responded, “It's not actively doing private impound; it is not for hire.”
After more questioning, Bova admitted, “That's the one that brought the cars back” because “they needed them.”
Bova again said this was a one-time issue.
ABC15’s cameras did get video of another Metro truck that did have the DPS decal, but in the last three weeks, Metro has not provided ABC15 with a valid DPS registration number.
ABC15 gave DPS several names that this company has operated under, two possible owner names, the company's real USDOT number, and business address. DPS has not turned up any confirmation this company is currently licensed to tow cars as required by state code. DPS told ABC15 Friday that investigators are now “looking into” Metro Towing and Impounds.
The Public Interest Research Group advocates for fair towing across the country.
“This is a big deal for folks,” said PIRG’s Jacob van Cleef.
Van Cleef said Arizona has some protections, which not all states have, such as a right to access items inside your car after it’s towed. Arizonans can also pay towing fees with a credit card, so they don't have to have cash.
Arizona law lacked some other consumer protections, according to PIRG’s research.
“You don't have statewide maximum [fee] for towing, as well as, you don't have any laws that specifically state that the tow company needs to notify certain people once they tow the vehicle,” Van Cleef said.
Some Arizona cities, including Phoenix, do have tow charge maximums as well signage and post-tow notification requirements.
However, Phoenix police said they don't independently verify if the companies are properly licensed through DPS.
"Phoenix PD currently does not have access to any list or database that maintains licensing information,” a department spokesman said in an email. “We will continue to take the tow information."
Looking back on the three “mistake” tows from March, Bova said, “There was no harm, no foul.”
Roberson and Hunter disagree. Weeks later they are frustrated about the unnecessary hassles and the lack of accountability for improper tows.
“Some sort of recourse would be nice,” Hunter said.
“Get this information out and stop this from happening,” Roberson said.
Arizonans who believe a tow truck company is violating state law or permit rules are encouraged to make a report to DPS.