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If people think it's a good idea to call for help, they should think again. The help in this town works only to jack you around.
Trust no one.
Robert "Pete" Coleman found that out the hard way in May, when someone rear-ended his metallic-blue '89 Plymouth Voyager along I-29 as he drove home to Parkville.
"Another Plymouth Voyager hit me and I went shooting forward," Coleman says. "When I was hit, the front reclining seat ratcheted down and I was looking up at the ceiling. I was scared and I thought I was going to die."
Coleman survived the crash, only to regret a sudden encounter with a stranger trying to make a killing.
"Immediately a guy in a tow truck pulled over," Coleman says. "He obviously saw the accident and he was on us like flypaper."
The tow-truck driver identified himself as working for Corey's Tow of Kansas City. Before the police, fire department, and ambulance arrived, the driver had "negotiated" a deal for his services with the two unsuspecting motorists. "He said, 'If you guys want to have your cars towed to the body repair shop, your insurance will take care of you.'"
An ambulance took the 59-year-old Coleman, afflicted with a history of heart trouble, to a hospital. He was treated and released. Coleman says he and his wife, Gerry, went to check on his van at Jack Miller Body Works in North Kansas City, where he had instructed Corey's Tow to take it. Although Coleman's van had sustained $2,900 worth of damage to the tailgate and rear bumper brackets, it was the tow bill that caught Coleman's attention: $421 for a 3 1/2-mile haul.
Coleman says Corey's couldn't give him any logical explanation for the charges. The itemized breakdown mirrored the type of "creative" billing consistent with "wreck-chasing" (a.k.a. "wreck-running" and "call-jumping") -- the practice of tow operators who eavesdrop on police scanners and hunt for accident victims.
Wreck-chasers -- ambulance-chasers with the hookup -- rally to the scene and pressure motorists into accepting their business, usually before police arrive. The payoff: jacked-up towing and storage fees for such phantom services as "waiting time." Customers might be able to drive away, but the tow drivers give them bogus prognoses about their cars' condition. Or tell them that insurance covers all. Fees for routine calls, based on a sample of billing receipts collected by the city, range anywhere from $300 to well above $700.
Critics say wreck-chasers make accident scenes more dangerous by crowding roadways, fighting among themselves, and interfering with police and paramedics. A wreck-chaser isn't afraid to stick a business card into the hand of someone strapped to a gurney. And a runner can work alone or for larger tow operators who play a numbers game, using unlisted phone numbers and addresses and switching company names to keep customers guessing about the whereabouts of their cars -- and then tacking on higher storage charges.
Coleman was mortified by the $421 bill from Corey's: towing fee, $111; rollover or extraction fee, $100; flatbed tow truck charge, $100; waiting time, $75; and cleanup charge, $35.
"He played us like a violin and had it down pat," Coleman says. "I think Kansas City is leaving the situation open. The city could have done something about this. That's why I live outside of Kansas City."