Feasability of car thieves using tow trucks?

A friend and I were talking about a phenomena we see all the time, which is a car on a tow truck - sometimes even with the alarm blaring while it is being towed.

It occurred to us that while people/police would confront a shifty looking individual who is obviously breaking into a car, no one ever questions whether a tow truck driver hooking up a car is legitimate or a car thief. It then occurred to us that a car thief could probably just buy a used tow truck, put on some kind of overalls with a fake name tag, and cruise the shopping mall/ airport lots looking for targets, and then casually hook up desirable cars and haul them away in broad daylight without even the police stopping them. Even if the cops did question why they were hooking up the car, they could claim it was a repo, owner called to say it was broken down, etc. and have a plausible excuse. I’d bet they could even easily talk their way out of the owner catching them by saying someone had phoned the car in as broken down, stolen, etc. and that it was an honest mistake…

What stops a car thief from doing this? I’m sure I’m not the first guy to think of this. Do tow trucks have some kind of identifier on them that at least tells the cops they are legitimate? Do we have any former tow truck drivers on the SDMB who can chime in? With this model, the thief wouldn’t even need to have an accomplice drop them off. They could steal the car in the public place, take it to a second secluded location, then figure out how to break in, disable the alarm, etc. at their leisure. Seems to me any legitimate tow truck driver might ALSO be a car thief on the side to make extra money as well.

I recall reading somewhere (sorry I can’t remember where) that due to the prevalence of anti-theft devices something like 20% of car thefts in detroit and DC are now done by tow truck.

For the majority of cases though I imagine it’s more trouble then it’s worth. Just wait till no-one is around and smash the window, or jump in a car that’s idling, or just pull a weapon and take a car someone’s already driving.

ISTM that it takes a whole lot longer to put a car onto a tow truck than it does to just drive off in it. Noisier, too. That would increase the chances of discovery.

Business name-other tow companies would probably notice an unidentified truck running around and would certainly know all the legitamate companies in the area.

Phone number-no number would look odd and if a number were present, motorists might try to call at some point and find it’s phony/wrong.

Business licence/DOT/DMV numbers would be on the truck if legit.

I worked as a prosecutor in Chicago for a while, and this was one of my first cases.

I’ll just say, yes, it’s very hard to catch a tow truck operator who steals cars, but it can be done (the police have to get lucky). And yes, it’s very hard to convict that person in court, but we demonstrated that it can be done.

runner pat - good point, but presumably if I was going to go to all the trouble to get a used tow truck as a car thief, I’d make up a some fake business cards with a phone number, fake business name for the truck, etc. in case I was challenged by the police/owner. I would think in a big city, it would not be realistic for a random tow truck driver to know all the towing companies, or even care enough to call it in.

With my AAA Plus membership, I get free towing up to 100 miles. Let’s presume I break down 75 miles away, but want the unknown, out of town towing place to bring it to my local mechanic, which has happened… now there is a reason for a non-local towing company to be in my area with a car on his truck. I presume these guys don’t get regularly stopped by the police for being out-of-towners. I poked around on line and indeed already found several stories of car thieves doing this tow truck thing, so I guess I apologize for not looking there first. My question is, what can the police do to stop them?

Crime is like water, it follows the path of least resistance. Elaborate and safe means of stealing a car may be perfectly do-able, but in general it won’t happen because anyone enterprising or smart enough to think in such terms is most likely going to find gainful employ.

I suspect that if you find a tow truck based thief, that he is almost going to actually be a tow truck driver. He already has access to the truck, knows how to properly tow a car, and has some measure of immunity because it’s going to be terribly hard to prove that he was towing something he wasn’t supposed to, that he did so on purpose, and (if he was selling it to a chop shop) took it somewhere other than the correct location. For him, this route of thievery is quite easily accomplished. For anyone else, it’s too much hassle to see through and requires more creativity than can be expected.

Were they legit tow-truck drivers that were stealing cars (as SageRat suggested) or thieves with a fake tow-truck and credentials (as the OP implied)?

Ex-tow truck driver (1994-2000) here.

While I did tow your average disabled car at the side of the road, I also did a lot of what’s called “tresspass towing.” As in, the car is parked where it doesn’t belong, and the tow truck comes to take it away.

Some tresspass towing is done by routine patrol—for example, by prior agreement, the tow truck driver randomly passes through the parking lot of an apartment complex, and tows away cars without parking permits, parked in the fire lane, et cetera.

Some property owners prefer not to have patrols, and only have cars towed on a call-in basis.

Regardless, any good trespass tow truck driver will have the necessary skills to get the car quickly, quietly, and preferably without contact/confrontation with the car’s owner…all while not having the keys to the car.

And as some of you mentioned, even if the car’s alarm were sounding, or we were using tools to open the car’s door (to release parking brake or put transmission in neutral), generally the only person who would take any kind of action would be the car’s owner or a friend or family member. Passersby rarely even took any interest, and never thought we were stealing the cars.

Every town/state is a little bit different, but there’s always some procedure the tow driver has to follow, to inform the police the car has been towed for trespassing, so that when the owner goes looking for it (or to file a report, mistakenly thinking it was stolen), the police can tell him where the car is.

However, at least in Boston, the city-run call-in “tow line” is so frequently busy and overwhelmed that cars are often already being towed, while the tow truck’s dispatcher is still trying to get through to the tow line. Illegal, but it happens frequently.

And the fine for doing that is quite low:

Any person who, without notifying the chief of police or his designee, or the police commissioner or his designee, or without obtaining the consent of the owner, removes a vehicle from a private way or from improved or enclosed property as aforesaid, shall, in addition to any other penalty of law, be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.

As tow truck drivers are just as capable of human error as anyone else, it’s not unheard of that a legally parked car gets towed away from private property by mistake—several times, I’ve failed to see parking permits behind tinted windows at night. As soon as we discovered the mistake, we’d immediately bring the car back and put it where we found it. Sometimes the car’s owner would never know; other times, he’d be (understandably) very upset, and we’d apologize and usually it was OK.

As far as the tow truck, it has to have permanent markings of a certain size and type—magnetic or other temporary signs are not allowed. I tried to find a cite for this online but I couldn’t. Here in Massachusetts, there are State Police truck-enforcement divistions that keep a close eye on this…but small-town police departments are less likely to know about and/or enfoce these things.

Most towing companies, at least around the Boston area, are so unpleasant to work for that job hopping is very common. I generally knew who all the other local companies were, as well as many of their drivers, and had either already worked for them, or considered applying.

However, when I did see the occasional truck from out of town, I just assumed it was either delivering a car from somewhere else, or had been called in by someone who lived far away.

In conclusion:

A. I don’t know if your average car thief would be willing to invest the money and time to purchase a tow truck, comply with the various laws to register it, and learn how to operate, just to steal cars.

B. On the other hand, a full-time tow truck driver who needs/wants to make some extra money, might certainly steal a few cars while the boss is asleep. Or if he’s a one-man owner/driver, he might do it himself.

If caught in the act, he could say that he didn’t realize the car was legally parked, apologize, and release the car back to its owner.

He might even go so far as to invent a story that a customer had pre-paid him to pick up the car and bring it somewhere, perhaps even writing up a phony receipt.

“This guy called up, and he was at the bar on Main Street. He said he was too drunk to drive, and his friend took his car keys away. He paid me to pick up his car that was around the corner in his friend’s apartment’s parking lot, and tow it to his house and leave it out front on the street. I have no idea where the car went after that, sorry.”

Maybe no one will believe him, but it might not be so easy to prove.

P.S. At least here in Massachusetts, all my above comments are about cars parked on private property. Any car to be towed from a public way usually must be only ordered by police and/or a city’s parking enforcement department, and they’ll usually use only one or a few towing companies that have a (usually highly sought after) contract with the city.

[quote=“Sage_Rat, post:7, topic:516815”]

Crime is like water, it follows the path of least resistance. Elaborate and safe means of stealing a car may be perfectly do-able, but in general it won’t happen because anyone enterprising or smart enough to think in such terms is most likely going to find gainful employ.QUOTE]


This may be getting off topic, but cars are undeniably more difficult to steal than they used be. Most modern cars have some sort of factory-installed immobilizer that your average kid-on-the-street-with-a-screwdriver will not be able to defeat easily. Also, aftermarket car alarms are much more popular than in the past.

It’s widely thought that widespread carjacking came about as a result of these newer, harder to steal cars.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that thefy by towing might also be on the increase for similar reasons.

Sage Rat hit the nail on the head, except that it’s not individual rogue drivers. There are many small “legit” companies (with Yellow Pages listings and everything) whose income is actually derived mainly from two sources:

  1. Stealing cars that are apparently abandoned or recently wrecked, and selling them for scrap. Not to a chop-shop. Just for scrap.
  2. What we call predatory towing. Where they listen for accidents on a police scanner, and accost disoriented accident victims. They do the tow without a written contract. When the victim goes to pick up his car from the tow lot the next day, the company claims he agreed to pay $900 for the tow, and he has no proof of anything different.

Or some combination of the two. These companies usually have one to three trucks, and maybe five employees. Just like any other private tow company. In Chicago, it is easier to find one of these crooked tow companies than it is to find an honest tow company.

This thread reminds me of what happened to my uncle, years ago. He had inherited a pristine 1967 Mustang convertible (from a friend who had passed away). The car was inhis driveway (without plates), and he went away for a week’s vacation. On his return, the car as missing-a tow truck had mistakenly towed it to a local junkyard, where it was stripped and crushed. As it turned out, the woman next door had called a junkyard to get rid of her daughter’s old car-the tow truck driver had gone to the wrong house!:smack:

There was a recent case here in the Portland area: Tow-truck company president guilty in truck theft

Great article about “Raja”, the big green heavy wrecker that was used in the armoured car heist in Heat. Apparently it’s still in service and gets people talking about it on the CB everywhere it goes!

Not used to steal cars - but still semi-relevant. And cool.

Even simpler in real life: Tow driver knows of individuals who are always in the market for certain makes/models, He gets a legitemate call to drag one in, and looks the other way while the buyer “steals” the car from the yard.

Something sounds fishy about that sort of story. I’d imagine that if I was working in a junkyard, and a cherry 67 Mustang convertible came in as a “crush job,” I’d buy it in a second… even if just to resell above whatever “junk price” I was able to get it for.

Possible, sure, but I’d bet there is a deeper truth to that story than the tale you heard from the family.

But then you’d have multiple car thefts from the same yard – that would look suspicious. And since the tow was legit, it would be recorded by the towing company.

Or do you mean the whole towing company is in on the scheme? So it would be like the examples above, except that the initial tow would be legit?

A tow truck is an expensive piece of capital. Most thieves just dont plan on this level and dont have the resources to aquire one. Its probably just a better use of a thief’s time to steal car stereos and the occasional home theft than trying out this scheme. Not to mention they wont have the skills to do this quickly or properly unless theyve spent some time actually driving a tow truck in the past via employment.