Maryland toughened up its towing laws in 2012 requiring, among other things, bigger signs to alert drivers and photographic evidence of any violations before a tow.
The new law also banned a practice called “spotting." According to the law, towing companies “may not employ or otherwise compensate individuals, commonly referred to as ‘spotters,' whose primary task is to report the presence of unauthorized parked vehicles for the purpose of towing or removal, and impounding.”
“A lot of consumers don't realize that somebody is watching them in many cases," Eric Friedman, who investigates towing complaints with Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, told News4.
Friedman said a few aggressive towing firms who wait for someone to park illegally have turned some shopping centers into lucrative fishing holes.
“Somebody who just stands on the street or hides in a garage or building just waiting on someone to walk off the property, one false step, waiting for someone to exceed the limit by one minute," Friedman said.
After getting complaints that it might be happening in a popular downtown Silver Spring location, the News4 I-Team staked out the Blairs Shopping Center over several days. Each morning we spotted two to three men who walked around the lot with radios and phones.
They took pictures of cars, they watched people -- even our team -- as they got out of their vehicles. Our cameras caught tow trucks parked right around the corner, who swept in minutes after someone parked to tow them, even though most of the lot sat empty.
Signs are posted all over the parking lot stating "Walk Offs Will be Towed," meaning drivers cannot park in the lot and leave the property.
But Suri Durvasula’s car got towed even though he was visiting some of the businesses in the shopping center.
“I went in to go to the bank and then I went to get a haircut. By the time I came out of the shopping center there, my car was taken, towed," Durvasula said.
The Tower Companies manages the shopping center and told the News4 I-Team there has been a problem in the past with commuters using the lot, taking spaces away from customers for the retail community.
The cars are towed by a company called G&G Towing. Friedman said his office routinely gets the most complaints about G&G Towing each month.
According to police records, the company reported more than 700 tows in January alone, more than any other towing company in the county.
The News4 I-Team reached out to the owner of G&G Towing several times and stopped by the main office, but we’re still waiting for a response.
When we approached one of the men we saw in the parking lot watching vehicles, he told us he did not work for G&G Towing, and then drove away. But when we sent Montgomery County a picture of the man, they confirmed he was the owner of G&G Towing.
The News4 I-Team discovered the owner of G&G is suing the state over the new towing law, calling parts of its unconstitutional, including the section about "spotters."
According to court records, the suit claims it is oppressive and unreasonable to require photographic evidence while at the same time prohibiting, and making it a crime, to employ or otherwise compensate individuals who gather and report the required photographic evidence.
Durvasula said whoever was watching him got it wrong, because his car got towed even though he never left the shopping center. G&G Towing brought his car back to the shopping center after Durvasula complained to one of the men in the parking lot.
"I guess they saw somebody looking like me crossing the street and they came back and took my car," he said. "How many times do they actually make those mistakes? Who knows, right?"