‘I think their license should be taken away:’ Vehicle owners fight back over tow company’s special fee

MILWAUKEE —  A Milwaukee couple says a special fee one towing company is adding to almost every bill has to stop. The company charged extra for using special equipment to tow a car, but FOX6 Investigators' hidden cameras suggest otherwise.

Kevin Ryan might actually think it was funny if he wasn't so upset about an email he and his wife, Karen Schmitting, got from Always Towing last month.

"It was almost laughable," Ryan said. "The company wants to take us for fools, I guess."

Ryan and Schmitting had requested a refund for extra charges added to their towing bill, but the emailed response they received left them angry and has them asking the city to take action. To understand why, consider what happened earlier this summer.

Overnight Tow Captured on Camera

On June 27, 2019, Ryan and Schmitting's 2009 Toyota Corolla was towed from a Walgreen's parking on Brady Street. Their son had left the car there overnight. The next day, Always Towing handed them a bill for $348.48. The bill included a $125 fee for the use of special equipment.

They would have chalked it up to an expensive lesson, but for one thing. The FOX6 Investigators were watching the parking lot that night, because it is one of Always Towing's most frequent targets. Our hidden cameras were rolling as an Always Towing employee photographed the car, then loaded it onto a flatbed truck.

The video appears to clearly show that the company did not use anything special to load the car — just a standard tow chain. See for yourself by watching the raw video just below.

"It means we were charged for something that wasn't necessary. We got taken," Schmitting said.

FOX6 Investigators' cameras captured Kevin Ryan and Karen Schmitting's car getting towed after their son parked it overnight in a Walgreens parking lot on Brady St.

"We got charged for something they didn't do," Ryan said.

"Only in special and unusual circumstances."

Always Towing removes far more cars from private property than any other company in Milwaukee. Public records obtained by FOX 6 News show they towed more than 9-thousand cars from private property in Milwaukee in 2017 and 2018.

Hector Padin is one of the company's biggest fans. He manages a 16-unit rental complex in West Allis with 25 parking spaces. Padin says parking complaints used to take up too much of his time until Always Towing agreed to patrol his lot for free.

Hector Padin

"We were expecting some sort of a fee or a subscription, but we don't have to pay anything," Padin explained.

That's because Always Towing makes its money from the people whose cars get towed, which gives the company a financial incentive to tow as many cars as possible and charge as much as state law will allow.

"They're taking advantage of the consumer," Schmitting said.

To protect consumers from being "unconscionably gouged," Wisconsin state law sets the maximum fee at $150 per tow plus extra fees for storage and municipal recording. In limited situations, a company can charge for the use of special equipment, like when a car is blocked into a tight space.

Milwaukee Alderman Nik Kovac says the law was never intended to apply to all private property tows.

Alderman Nic Kovac

Mike Tarantino (right) in a 2018 license committee meeting

"Only in special and unusual circumstances," Kovac said. "That should not be the standard operating procedure of any tow company."

In 2018, Always Towing told Kovac and the rest of Milwaukee's licenses committee they charge for special equipment anytime they tow a car without the owner's keys.

"When you don't have keys," Tarantino begins to say, when the alderman cuts him off.
"So that would be every time you're doing a hostile tow, right?" Kovac asked.
"Pretty much," an unidentified voice can be heard saying in response.

Fighting the special equipment fee

After the FOX6 Investigators showed the video of their car being towed in July, Ryan and Schmitting emailed Always Towing demanding a refund. Instead, they say, they got an excuse.

In an email to the couple, Tarantino wrote:

"Please be advised, we have reviewed the entire process of your vehicle being towed, prompted by the FOX6 report. The report shows one portion of the process [loading], it does not show the vehicle being unloaded. The story aired for the public didn't mention or show the 'unloading,' perhaps intentionally or possibly just 'overlooked' by an investigative report."

Because of that, their request for a refund was denied.

"I don't see how they would use the equipment just to unload," Ryan said. "It doesn't make any sense."

FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn shows Kevin Ryan and Karen Schmitting the video of their car getting towed.

FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn caught up with Tarantino at a  meeting for local tow companies and asked for an explanation.

"Do you charge for unloading vehicles with special equipment?" Polcyn asked Tarantino. "Why would you need to use special equipment to unload a car, but not to load it?"

Tarantino did not give an explanation or respond to Polcyn's questions.

If a refund is what they wanted before, Ryan and Schmitting have something bigger in mind now.

"I think their license should be taken away," Schmitting said.

FOX6 Investigator attempts to get answers from Mike Tarantino.

After all, they figure there's likely nothing special about what happened to them.

"They are probably treating other people such as us the same way," Schmitting said. "And they're getting away with it. And it has to stop. And it has to stop now."

Schmitting has filed a formal complaint with the City of Milwaukee seeking revocation of Always Towing's license. Staff members at city hall says that could result in a revocation hearing before the licenses committee as early as October 1st.

Always Towing sent the following statement to the FOX6 Investigators:

"The Recycling Salvage and Towing industry is a highly competitive market that provides essential community services for the safety and well-being of our community and our citizens. Each year over 25 million tons of material is recycled from old or abandon vehicles. In fact, automobiles are the most recycled consumer product in the world today. The towing business contributes to the bulk of those recovered materials as well as protects the property rights of private citizens and prevents traffic obstruction on our streets. While no one is a fan of nonconsensual towing it is a vital community service that we all need, so it is curious as to why it has come under sought scrutiny as of late.

The Recycling Salvage and Towing industry is not only regulated by the State of Wisconsin but also the City of Milwaukee, one of our biggest competitors in the business. Pursuant to those regulations the towing industry must comply with the pricing restrictions imposed by those regulations. In the spirit of being great corporate citizens in this community, Always Towing has abided by those regulations, no matter how strict or ambiguous they may be. Because we realize that our services can be not only inconvenient for our customer, but also costly, we make every effort to protect our customers’ assets while in our possession. Special equipment is used to avoid extensive damage to our customer’s vehicles. Special equipment is necessary to avoid any damage to the drivetrain that would occur if we attempted to move a vehicle while in park. Special equipment is used both in the positioning of the vehicle for a safe tow and the removal of the vehicle for storage until the vehicle is finally recovered by the customer.

Always Towing is a full service towing company that is dedicated to the protection of our environment and the enforcement of our parking laws to ensure order in our community. It is our hope that while nonconsensual towing may pose an inconvenience for our customers, that we remain respectful of their personal property that has been entrusted to us by preventing unnecessary damage to their oftentimes, prize possession. "

Always Towing's statement does not address, specifically, why they charged extra money to Ryan and Schmitting for special equipment that does not appear to have been used, according to our video.

Always Towing is not the only company the city is getting complaints about. Just this summer, the city has received complaints about at least three other towing companies for allegedly excessive charges, including the use of special equipment fees. However, those complaints did not seek revocation. So, the city says they likely will not be heard until each company is up for its next license renewal, which happens once every two years.

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