December 3, 2007

Police warn about “chasers” at crash scenes

Hamilton, Ontario – Police in Hamilton, Ontario are warning that a “legal void” has turned that city into a “lucrative hunting ground” for certain tow truck operators who talk drivers into using their services following a crash. What the victim doesn’t know is that this “collision chaser” is often getting a commission from an auto body shop to tow it there.

Police also say that the chaser sometimes auctions off his unsuspecting driver to the highest bidder, or that the chaser is the repair shop itself. If the owner wants to take the car elsewhere, he or she can be stuck with a bill ranging into the thousands of dollars to get it out of the shop, and police can do nothing about it unless it directly interferes with an investigation.

“If you sign something, it’s buyer beware,” said Vince DeMasico, Hamilton Police Inspector. He said that these chasers are not on the list of tow companies under contract with police.

The system is so competitive that rivals rush to get to the crash first, said John Norris, executive director of the Hamilton District Autobody Repair Association (HARA). “They go through traffic signs, over lawns, it doesn’t matter. They need to get their first to take to that customer.” He said the chasers often pay a $25 “bird fee” to cab drivers, delivery fleets and bus drivers to pass on information by cell phone, and even lurk across the street from police stations, waiting for collision victims to leave the independent collision reporting centres in the station lobbies.

Police and HARA say that up to a dozen “collision vultures” are now operating, many coming from as far away as Toronto and Mississauga, following a judge quashing a city bylaw last year that outlawed solicitation at a crash site.

Norris said that chasers get a percentage back for the tow or the repair, which can result in tow or storage bills in the thousands, and if a customer chooses to repair the vehicle elsewhere, the unscrupulous shops will increase the bill. “$500 to move cars around, $300 to use the cellphone, $300 to take the groceries out of the trunk,” Norris said. “Or it could be $600 for (them) being at the shop after five p.m., when they were only there for five minutes. The chaser wants to make as much money as he can and the shop that’s doing the repair has to recover the money they’ve paid the chaser.”

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