ASK GE­ORGIE! MAKE SURE YOU KNOW BE­FORE YOU TOW

The in­dus­try is un­reg­u­lated so op­er­a­tors are free to charge what­ever they like

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

FIRST on the scene, com­pe­tent, might­ily en­thu­si­as­tic for the busi­ness, pro­fes­sional and a god­send when you’re vul­ner­a­ble: tow-truck driv­ers of­ten get a bad rap but that doesn’t mean the en­tire in­dus­try should be tar­nished by a few rot­ters.

This might be the view of some of the tow­ing as­so­ci­a­tions and the op­er­a­tors they rep­re­sent, but the hon­est Joes re­main in the mi­nor­ity be­cause the in­dus­try is un­reg­u­lated. So the dis­rep­utable tow truck driv­ers do as they please – ly­ing and con­niv­ing, feed­ing on shocked crash vic­tims, bul­ly­ing and ef­fec­tively steal­ing ve­hi­cles, be­cause they have noth­ing to fear.

Since any­one can buy a li­cence and get a truck (and vice versa), crash vic­tims never know what they’re get­ting when as­sis­tance pulls up on the side of the road. So they ei­ther go with a “name”, the first driver at the scene, or – if they’re lucky enough to have in­sur­ance (more than 65% of driv­ers on our roads are unin­sured) – they con­tact their in­surer’s ap­proved road­side as­sist.

Gift Karim­ireni main­tains he was duped into us­ing the ser­vices of A1 As­sist – part of the Help 24 group – when he was in­volved in a crash in the Joburg CBD. Ad­mit­ting fault, the other driver gave her in­sur­ance de­tails to the benef­i­cent tow truck driver, who whipped out his phone to call her in­surer, MiWay, to au­tho­rise the tow. Only thing is – the “con­sul­tant” he spoke to was not from MiWay.

None the wiser, Gift and the other driver ex­changed de­tails and left his dam­aged ve­hi­cle with the tow truck op­er­a­tor.

“The so-called MiWay con­sul­tant au­tho­rised them to have the car towed away to Great South Auto Body, af­ter she ex­plained ev­ery­thing to her in­sur­ance com­pany. To my sur­prise, the car was towed to A1 As­sist’s yard – which was never agreed on and be­sides the car was driv­able – but they told us they work with MiWay, hence any car that was in­volved in an ac­ci­dent should be towed and as­sessed be­fore it’s driven again. I called Great South Auto to find out if my car was de­liv­ered there, but to my sur­prise it wasn’t.”

Two days later, he got a call from A1 As­sist, ask­ing when he would be fetch­ing his car as it was ac­cu­mu­lat­ing stor­age costs. Which stor­age, Karim­ireni asked, be­cause he wanted it towed to the pan­el­beater, not their yard? At that stage, the cost had es­ca­lated to R9 500 (about the same as two nights’ stay at a five-star ho­tel in the V&A Wa­ter­front).

Karim­ireni’s at­tempts to reach A1 As­sist’s bosses failed so he went to the po­lice.

“Af­ter a num­ber of runarounds from po­lice sta­tion to po­lice sta­tion (Jo­han­nes­burg Cen­tral, Rood­e­poort and Sophi­a­town) in try­ing to get help in re­cov­er­ing my car, Cap­tain Mphe­lane from Jo­han­nes­burg Cen­tral po­lice sta­tion called Do­minic, the A1 tow truck driver to ask why the car was de­liv­ered to their yard in Rood­e­poort in­stead of the ad­dress on the slip. The driver said it was their com­pany pol­icy to de­liver ve­hi­cles to their yard first for as­sess­ment be­fore de­liv­er­ing it to the agreed ad­dress. That was bizarre be­cause that pol­icy was never com­mu­ni­cated to me or writ­ten any­where on the signed agree­ment.”

And the car was go­ing nowhere un­til he’d paid for its lux­ury lodg­ings. “It was clear that the agree­ment was never le­git but a way of co­erc­ing me to sign with the in­ten­tion of steal­ing my car. This, there­fore, was more of theft of a mo­tor ve­hi­cle by false pre­tence.”

Even­tu­ally, Sophi­a­town po­lice got in­volved and with the me­di­a­tion of a Colonel Mehlape, the tow fee was “knocked down” to R4 000.

“I was so shocked and never imag­ined that we have such un­scrupu­lous com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in this coun­try and get­ting away with it with­out be­ing brought to book. Af­ter some re­search, I came across an ocean of com­plaints against the same com­pany on the in­ter­net but I felt it’s not enough to just com­plain with­out do­ing any­thing about it, hence I need your help to name and shame this un­scrupu­lous com­pany.”

I asked A1 to com­ment but they hadn’t re­sponded by my dead­line. It’s not the first run-in with this com­pany and there are a myr­iad of com­plaints on­line.

Ear­lier this year, an­other reader, Jo­han Koen, ef­fec­tively lost his car be­cause he couldn’t pay their stor­age fees – de­spite the in­ter­ven­tion of their tow­ing as­so­ci­a­tion, SA Tow­ing and Re­cov­ery As­so­ci­a­tion (Sa­tra) and its rec­om­men­da­tion that the cost, which had es­ca­lated to R25 000 by that stage, be knocked down to a more “rea­son­able” R4 000. The Mo­tor­ing Om­buds­man ruled in favour of A1 As­sist though – be­cause he had signed the tow slip and ne­go­ti­ated a lower fee.

Nthabiseng Kul­wane, from the Gaut­eng Con­sumer Af­fairs of­fice, told me they will be serv­ing A1 As­sist with a “Sec­tion 8” no­tice in terms of their Un­fair Busi­ness Prac­tice Act 7 of 1996.

“The last time we tried, the en­vi­ron­ment was not re­ally safe. Ba­si­cally the Sec­tion 8 no­tice is a for­mal in­vi­ta­tion invit­ing the re­spon­dent (A1 As­sist) to come for a round­table dis­cus­sion, wherein our of­fice will be pre­sent­ing its con­cerns with re­gard to com­plaints against them, and they will be af­forded the op­por­tu­nity to present their case. If the Sec­tion 8 meet­ing does not bear any fruits, our of­fice will have (to re­con­sider op­tions).”

Et­ti­enne Pel from Utasa told me: “We were in end­less and al­most use­less en­gage­ments with the Gaut­eng Con­sumer Af­fairs of­fice the last time they is­sued a Sec­tion 8 against the com­pany, which in­forms them that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion is be­ing launched against them. My un­der­stand­ing is that this is then gazetted too.

“As Utasa, we en­deav­our to as­sist con­sumers on a daily ba­sis, es­pe­cially against this com­pany, but it is fu­tile when noth­ing is be­ing done from gov­ern­ment, the cus­to­dian of the Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act. A1/ Help24 is NOT an Utasa mem­ber.”

PIC­TURE: ALON SKUY

WARN­ING: Trust­ing the wrong tow truck op­er­a­tor can be a costly mis­take. Make sure you know ex­actly what you are agree­ing to be­fore you sign any­thing.

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