WHITE CLOUD, Mich. (WZZM) -- Some West Michigan towing companies are being accused of adding excessive fees to their bills. It’s an issue the WZZM 13 Watchdog team has been investigating for several months.
Jason Cummins is just one of several frustrated customers who asked for help. He says it all started when someone hit his suburban in Muskegon County.
"I specifically told the dispatcher that I would need a flatbed," Cummins said.
Cummins did not specify a company and says Eagle Towing showed up with a conventional wrecker.
"He tried several times to secure my vehicle with that truck, and couldn't do it, so he called a flatbed in," Cummins said.
Cummins' suburban was taken to Eagle Towing. The next day, he was given a bill for $905.
The invoice included two tow trucks at $295 each. There were also fees; lots of them. They included two fuel surcharges, mileage, inclement weather, medical care reform act, and reclamation and gate fees.
Cummins also had to get it towed to the body shop a few days later.
"They brought me a secondary bill with an additional $70 storage and towing bill for $147, which brought my total bill to $1,123," Cummins said.
Jason's was furious. He says he filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and called the WZZM 13 Watchdog team.
Since starting our investigation, several customers, insurance companies, and tow truck companies have contacted WZZM with complaints. Most involve companies in Muskegon and Newaygo counties.
Andrew Schmiedecknecht's had a similar experience with Jerry's Towing. His car over-heated and caught on fire. He was charged $325 each, for two trucks. Plus, all the added fees. His bill was $775.
"I don't care if I get any recovery, as long as this guy doesn't get any more business," Schmiedecknecht said.
"You know, we're not gouging people," said Keith Baker, who owns Jerry's, Dave’s, and Newaygo Towing. He says he increased his rates and started adding fees a few years ago after attending a class in Massachusetts. The company posts ads in towing magazines.
This is the class that was taken: (Big Wheel - Recovery Billing Unlimited)
"We were struggling to get paid on accidents," Baker said. "And some of these jobs are very expensive."
Baker says he learned how to itemize his services. He claims it’s necessary when billing insurance companies.
Over at Eagle Towing, Andrew Heycoop uses a similar style. We asked him about the “administrative fee” and “inclement weather fee."
“That would be us processing the scene, taking pictures, documentation, writing narrative, breaking down the invoice for insurance company," Heycoop said. "Inclement Weather is due to hazardous conditions, working slower, safer, equipment breaks down."
We also asked Baker about the reclamation fee: “Reclamation fee is 3 percent. That's to pay for, if you look over my shoulder, we have 150 vehicles that have not been paid for and will not get paid for. They go to auction in May. Scrap is down to nothing, we'll get very little out of these cars. The reclamation helps us recoup some of that."
So, if the situation is so bad, why aren't all tow companies doing the same thing? WZZM took the issue to the Michigan Towing Association.
"Yes, I can relate to both sides of the issue," says Joel Ballor, President of the MTA.
He knows how tough in can be to make money. Especially in a rural area, where the call volume isn't as high. "There's a lot of good hard working towers across the state that do a good job. Putting their life on the lines out there."
Ballor didn't want to criticize anyone else's pricing structure, but when asked about those fees, he admitted that he didn’t use them: “My company does not do that, but I can’t speak to whether that’s the market average.”
WZZM made several calls to West Michigan Towing companies. Most reported an average of about $150 to $200 for an accident. A local insurance company provided us with a comparison.
Similar accident, similar vehicle. Merl's Towing in Kent County, charged $190. Eagle Towing cost $730.
"I just could never imagine handing that to an insurance adjusted," says Chad Momber who owns Sparta, A-1, and Rockford Towing. He admits no two accidents are the same, but his average is about $150. He wants people to know their rights.
"You as a customer have a choice," Momber said. "You can pick you're towing service and if you don't police will dispatch an area wrecker."
Local municipalities are trying to address the issue. The Newaygo County Sheriff's Department recently asked tow companies to submit a basic price sheet. But it doesn't address all the fees.
When it comes to tow companies, Michigan State Police oversee licensing, but there is no regulation on price. MSP recommends people research local tow truck companies to find out their rates and fees.
Also, Contact your insurance company to see what kind of towing coverage you have on your vehicle.
In Cummins' case, his insurance company paid the $1,100 bill.
"And while I guess you can do it. It doesn't seem to be ethical or moral; it doesn't seem to be right," he said.
If you feel that you’ve been given an unfair price, you can file a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
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