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.
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.