Tow trickery: There’s an app for that

The Allstate Road Service app.
The Allstate Road Service app.

PARCHMENT, Mich. (WOOD) — It was a normal, comfy Sunday breakfast until Windy Otto looked out the window of her Parchment home. A wrecker driver was getting ready to tow away her car.

Otto ran out and told the driver she didn’t call for a tow. He pulled out his cellphone and showed her the order. It came from Allstate Road Service and showed someone named Roxie claimed it was her car and that she wanted it towed to an address in Portage.

Otto quickly suspected a former tenant was behind it. That woman has a criminal history for assault and is facing a new charge, Otto says, for assaulting her and her fiance’s mother.

The phone number the former tenant put on her rental application matches the number on the towing order. Target 8 Investigators called that number, wanting to know if she did it and, if so, how she came up with the idea. It was also unclear if the goal was to steal the car or just cause her former landlady more aggravation. But the woman refused to answer any questions and threatened to call police on Target 8 for harassment.

Otto, the car owner, had some questions, too.

“Why is it possible to punch a button on a phone, have someone respond and then get your car stolen?” she wondered.

Could the scammer have pulled it off? Could she have gotten away with the car?

Former Portage Mayor Jim Graham owns the towing company that Allstate sent to Windy Otto’s house. He showed Target 8 the order that came from Allstate. It says the scammer called it in as a “towing unattended” run. That means the owner wouldn’t be around when the wrecker showed up, explaining why the driver didn’t knock on Otto’s door.

But what if she hadn’t been home to stop him? Would he have towed her car away?

Graham said the driver would not have taken the car and that the driver told him that he had already dropped his tow chains in the driveway before Otto approached him, which she also noted. He was going to check the car for the keys first.

“We would not have taken it without the keys,” Graham told Target 8 investigators.

That’s their policy — but he said other companies may not have the same one.

So if someone is willing to take a vehicle without the keys, could someone else actually get your car towed?

The scammer had already fooled Allstate into sending a bogus towing order. Graham said it makes a difference to towing operators when orders come from legitimate insurance companies.

“We look at it and say, ‘Well, they’ve clearly vetted all this information and we go on from there,'” he said.

Otto said she talked to Allstate representatives, who told her that they also demand keys to prove ownership but in this case ordered the tow without them. Otto said Allstate told her the caller claimed “she had a bill of sale but that there were no working keys to the vehicle.”

Allstate refused to confirm that information or discuss details to Target 8, citing “privacy reasons.” But in an email, a spokesperson wrote Otto’s was an “isolated” case and that the company is investigating how it happened.

“I think they need some accountability,” Otto said.

The incident jolted towing company operator Jim Graham, too. He said he’s convinced his practice of demanding keys would have protected Otto’s car had she not been home to stop the tow. But also said he’s reviewing how his company does business to see if anything needs to be changed.

“It causes me to want to have our people be more careful, because maybe this is something new that we are going to start seeing with the advent of these different technological ways to request service,” he said.