How to avoid rogue tow truck scams


couple watching their car loaded on a tow truck

Bad enough if you are in an auto accident – that’s stressful enough. You might be injured or at the very least, shaken up. Suddenly a tow truck appears on the scene saying they are from your insurance company. While that might seem like lucky timing, it should actually raise your suspicions. High pressure tactics from rogue tow truck operators can lead to exorbitant towing and storage fees or your car being taken to a body shop that is in league with the tower. The National Insurance Crime Bureau recently released a public service announcement to raise awareness about rogue tow truck operators and how to avoid becoming a victim.

NCIB offers these tips:

  • Never give permission to a tow truck operator who arrives unsolicited to take your vehicle.
  • If you or law enforcement did not call a tow truck to the scene, do not deal with that operator.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with your insurance information.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with personal lien holder information.
  • Determine that the tow truck signage is identical to what appears on any documentation the tow truck operator provides (they may say they “work with” your insurance company).
  • If the tow truck does not display signage identifying the name of the tow company, ask for company identification.
  • If a tow operator’s legitimacy is in doubt, call the police.
  • Do not give a tow truck operator permission to tow your vehicle until they:
    –Provide a printed price list, to include daily storage fees and miscellaneous charges that will apply if they tow your car (if the prices seem too high, ask the police or your insurance company to call a towing service for you).
    –Provide printed documentation indicating where the vehicle is being towed if it is not a location of your choosing.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud offers more information on tow truck cons and scams, as well as extensive tips to for what to expect and what your rights are.

Check out the full article but here are a few tips from their list:

Think ahead: Join an emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. Also know your auto insurer’s roadside assistance program, with the tollfree number printed on your insurance card. They’ll set you up with reputable towing firms and repair shops.

Photos. Take a photo of the scene, including the tow truck. Use your cell phone or a disposable camera stored in your glove compartment.

Complain. File complaints if you’re scammed. Contact your insurer, state insurance department, local Better Business Bureau and the police.

Know your rights. State laws protect you if your vehicle is towed while you were away, such as while shopping. Confirm and complain if you suspect violations of these rules in most states:

  • The property owner or manager of a business that had your vehicle towed must be at the scene and sign the towing authorization in most states;
  • The operator must leave a small sign at the scene. It should have the firm’s name, address, phone, reason for towing, and who requested the tow;
  • Towing firms must take a photo of your vehicle in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Get the photos from the towing firm (though expect a fee); and
  • The towing operator must release your vehicle if you will not or cannot pay the requested towing free. This is true in most states, and then becomes a matter for civil courts.

When will you be driving a robotic car? Take an interactive online trip


illustration of a driverless car

Whatever you call them – robot cars, driverless cars, autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars – they are definitely in your future. But the question is, how far in your future?

They’re being tested already – more than 1,400 self-driving vehicles are operating in 36 states right now. Most states, but not all, require a backup driver.

Take an interactive urban trip as the backup driver in the Washington Post’s autonomous (self-driving) car simulation. It offers an interesting perspective on  the strengths and weaknesses in the way these cars work and how they interact with the environment around them. The Post invites you to sit in the passenger seat and play the role as the backup driver. And that’s an important role because the cars may miss some hazards and they can’t operate in certain weather conditions that interfere with their sensors, causing them to pull over suddenly and shut down entirely.

This interactive  feature is a fun way to learn more about how the cars work and their limitations. You can learn more about some of the system’s weaknesses in article in Insurance Journal by Alan Levin and Ryan Beene: Automated Driver Assist Cars Still a Work in Progress:

The radars and cameras used to sense obstructions ahead each have their limitations and computer software that evaluates the data is still a work in progress, according to the experts and advocates. In many cases, they are better at tracking moving vehicles ahead than recognizing parked ones.

But there are definite pluses, too:

To be sure, automated driving systems have clear potential to improve traffic safety by supplementing the driver. Automatic emergency braking alone has been found by IIHS to reduce rates of rear-end crashes by half, and the insurer-funded group estimates that the system could reduce police-reported crashes of all types by 20%.

Many autonomous or self-driving features are already making their way into our new cars now. These are generally referred to as advanced driver assistance systems. See 7 Self-Driving Car Features You Can Buy Now (and Some You May Already Have) from Autotrader. And cars.com breaks down self-driving features by car make.

But event these new tech features have a ways to go before they are up to par and winning driver acceptance. A recent survey by JD Power showed that many driver-assist features are seen as annoyances;

J.D. Power’s 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Index Study, published today, surveyed more than 20,000 consumers earlier this year, most of whom purchased or leased a model-year 2019 vehicle during the previous 90 days. Nearly a quarter of the group found alerts “annoying or bothersome” from systems that mitigate lane departure or actively center the vehicle, the study said. Such alerts range from hands-on-the-wheel warnings to lane departure chimes. For those who find them annoying, more than half said they sometimes disable the systems; among those who weren’t annoyed, only one-fifth or so indicated the same.

Some of the complaints can be chalked up to drivers being unfamiliar with the technology and uncertain about how it operates, so presumably we’ll all get more comfortable with things as we grow familiar with them.

So it’s not likely you’ll be able to read the latest best sellers while lounging in the back seat of your robot car on your upcoming commutes. But on the other hand, sophisticated technologies are leading to safer cars and fewer accidents – a big win for us all!

Buying a used car? Don’t get scammed by title washing


used car lot

You see a nice used car at the local dealership that would be great for your college-bound son. You buy the car, and a few weeks later, you get a call that your son is being held by police on a charge of car theft. What!?! You spend considerable time to prove he is not a criminal and that you recently bought the car. You clear things up for your son but the issue of the car is not so simple. You are the victim of title washing. The car is indeed a stolen vehicle so you won’t get that back.

If that sounds like a far-fetched scenario, it’s not. It’s exactly what happened recently to a Chicago couple who suffered a $24,000 loss on a used car they’d recently bought. Both they and the car dealership where they bought it were victims of a title washing ring that is now under investigation.

A title washing scam might seem like a relatively obscure thing, but it’s not. It’s estimated that used car buyers are scammed up to $30 billion a year in what the National Association of Attorneys General calls the worst problem used car buyers face. Experts say that as many as 1 in 44 titles in some states have been washed.

In simple terms, title washing is a scam in which the paperwork for stolen vehicles is faked or forged. But it’s not just stolen cars – title washing is also a way to clear a troubled car’s history, a common way to re-market cars that have been totaled, salvaged or flood-damaged. This article offers a good overview of the practice: Title Washing in America – Lemons without the Lemonade  It includes a handy list of red flags to look for when buying a used car, which we’ve reprinted below.

One lesson to be learned from this is not to rely solely on the title when buying a used car. In buying a used car, be sure to check if it has been declared stolen or totaled by searching the car’s VIN:

Of course, there are other best practices beyond just checking the title when buying a used car. See these sources for more tips:

red flags for buying aused car

How to avoid hydroplaning – and what to do if it happens


tire idriving through hevy rain to illustrate hydroplaning

We all think about tire safety in winter when the roads are snowy or slushy and we adjust our driving accordingly. But what about in the rain? Wet, slick roads with water buildup can be quite hazardous, too. Many drivers are rather cavalier about  adjusting their driving in the rain  and are caught short when something goes wrong, such as hydroplaning.

Hydroplaning – also sometimes called aquaplaning – is losing traction over water while driving, and actually skimming or sliding on the surface of that water. Losing contact with the road is a frightening experience because it results in loss of control of the car. The formula for hydroplaning is speed, tire tread depth and water depth. It’s important to maintain your tires and slow down when it rains. Even a light rain can be hazardous, particularly in the first few minutes as rainfall mixes with oils on the road surface.

Edmunds offers excellent Tips for Driving Safely in the Rain. Also, check out these two videos that talk more about what hydroplaning is and what to do should it occur.

 

Technology helps, but is not a substitute for caution
While driver-assist technologies such as traction control, anti-lock brakes and lane assist technologies can help keep us safer, don’t rely on them. Be cautious and be prepared:

  • Maintain your tires – make sure the tread is good and that they are properly inflated.
  • Slow down when it rains. Many experts suggest reducing speed by about one-third.
  • Avoid standing water.
  • Disable cruise control on wet roads and when raining.
  • Increase the following distance between you and the car ahead.
  • If you do hydroplane, stay calm, ease off the accelerator, and don’t make any sudden moves that may cause a spin out.

Cellphone driving laws: Florida and Massachusetts


Florida has a new law that prohibits texting while driving, which went into effect July 1. It’s called the Wireless Communications While Driving Law. From now until January 1, 2020, drivers who break the law will get a warning, but after that, a $30 fine will be imposed for a first offense, and a $60 fine for a second offense. But that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg – there are court costs, insurance surcharges and more that can make breaking the law quite costly. Florida Today explains why your $30 ticket becomes way more expensive, breaking down additional court costs and fees that bring your actual first-time penalty to $119 in Brevard County. (Each county’s fees may differ)  In addition to that, your auto insurance rates could cost you up to 25% more per year for three years. That means that a quick text could be very costly!

Local 10 offers a recap of what you need to know about Florida’s new texting while driving law. There are some exceptions, which they list as:

“Some exceptions apply. The law does not apply to vehicles that are stationary or to a driver who is:
– Performing official duties, such as operating an emergency vehicle (i.e., law enforcement, fire service professionals, and emergency medical service providers).
– Reporting an emergency, a crime or other suspicious activity to law enforcement.
– Receiving messages that are:
a. related to the operation and/or navigation of the motor vehicle; b. safety-related information (emergency, traffic, and weather alerts); c. data used primarily by the motor vehicle; or d. radio broadcasts.
– Using the device in a hands-free manner for navigation purposes.
– Using the device in a way that does not require manual entry of characters, except to initiate a function or feature.”

Massachusetts cell-phone ban law in the works

Massachusetts residents take note: In June, Boston.com reported that a driver hand-held cellphone ban moves closer to becoming law. The Senate and the House have both approved versions of the law and must now reach agreement on a compromise bill. But be aware that proposed fines are costly:

The bill calls for a fine of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a subsequent offense. Those who commit a second or subsequent offense would be required to complete a program that “encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving.”

A third or subsequent violation would also be a considered a surchargeable incident under car insurance policies. The bill would allow an exception to using cellphones in the case of an emergency if no one else in the car is able to make the call.

Driving & cellphone use laws by state

Here’s a handy tool to bookmark: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) maintains a summary of cell-phone use laws with maps and a detailed chart listing of cellphone use laws by state.

They summarize three types of prohibitions for cellphone use laws:

  • Hand-held ban laws: Bans on hand-held phone conversations while driving are widespread in other countries and are becoming more common in the U.S. In 2001, New York became the first state to ban hand-held phone conversations by all drivers. Now 20 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.
  • Texting ban laws: Texting is banned for all drivers in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Young driver phone ban use laws: 38 states and the District of Columbia restrict cellphone use by young drivers.