Inside the Tow Truck Mafia: How Organized Crime Took Over Canada’s Towing Industry

Back alley deals, fake crashes, arson, and even murder—nothing is off limits in the ruthless world of Canada’s towing companies.

byRob Stumpf| PUBLISHED Mar 23, 2022 12:49 PM
Inside the Tow Truck Mafia: How Organized Crime Took Over Canada’s Towing Industry
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When most people think of organized crime, they probably picture Tony Soprano’s “waste management” gig, the various drug cartels, or the body counts racked up by the Mafia in cities like New York and Chicago in decades past. But for the people living in Canada's most populous province, organized crime takes a very different but very real form: Towing. Yes, towing. Criminal enterprises have run rampant across Ontario's towing industry since at least the early 2000s, and the situation has resulted in unlawful tows, firebombs, and even murders across the Greater Toronto Area.

To understand why there's so much crime in Canada's towing industry, we have to back up and look at what many local organizations blame as being part of the problem: the way police call tow trucks to the scene of a wreck, and the lack of industry regulation.

via York Regional Police

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When there’s a wreck that requires a vehicle to be towed, the responding police department generally has a policy on how to contact a recovery company to tow the vehicle. Often, this is accomplished using a revolving list of approved companies that the department facilitates. However, not all departments follow this model, as the goal is often to clear an accident as quickly as possible to restore traffic flow. That means some departments—like the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP)—instead rely on the industry’s competitive drivers (called “chasers”) who race to be the first on the scene in order to get the job. 

Chasers aren’t new to the towing industry by any means, whether it be Canada or the United States. For many companies, the so-called “first available” model is one of the main ways to do business. Trucks constantly patrol crash hotspots in major cities and wait for the police to request the first available tow truck over their police scanner. Over time, this has escalated into companies and drivers monitoring police scanners and traffic reports for any hint of an accident, and then racing—or “chasing” the crash—to be the first company on the scene to offer services to a motorist with a disabled vehicle. Often, they beat the police to the scene and make off with the vehicle before officers even arrive.

“We are asking for people to get off the highway as quickly as they can,” said OPP Deputy Commissioner Rose DiMarco in a 2021 interview with TV news station CTV, later continuing to justify the use of the first-available model. “It becomes problematic if we have a car in a live lane. So we are looking for a tow company to be there quickly.”

The practice can be cutthroat, and as provincial police would later find out, it proved to be one of the major escalation points of the tow truck turf war in recent years. But it wasn’t where the conflict started, and doing away with the first available model won’t be what solves the problem either.

News reports of recovery agencies battling one another can be found dating back nearly two decades. Towing providers describe the Greater Toronto Area as being “the worst” in all of Canada when it comes to skirmishes between providers. Roadside brawls turned into gunfights and murders. More than 50 cases of arson have been connected to the towing industry, including multiple tow trucks being set ablaze throughout the years. Some towing providers even began intentionally causing accidents on highways and in parking lots to get more jobs and more kickbacks. 

Many critics blame the lack of industry regulation, something which only recently came into existence for towing providers, but still doesn't address what happens after the vehicle is taken off the truck.

The Cost of a Simple Tow

Towing can be quite lucrative for both drivers and agencies, mainly because the broad idea of towing a car is just the start of where money is made. While some cities like Toronto have regulated the cost of a first tow fee to a maximum of $279.68 (about $218 USD) for most passenger cars, that’s far from the only compensation that a towing company might receive. A company might collect fees for storage, on-hook and off-hook charges, mileage, and more. And when consumers attempt to get their vehicles back, difficult loopholes and missing information about where their vehicle was being held often caused intentionally inflated storage fees.

These towing bills can add up to thousands of dollars, resulting in Ontario even enacting a law to make towing bills more transparent and aid consumers in paying a fair price. The laws now require companies to have rates clearly posted, contact details on trucks and places of business, requiring the consumer to be told where their vehicle would be towed, and requiring the disclosure if they have a financial incentive for towing a vehicle to a particular repair shop.

via Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

That last point about having a financial interest in a repair shop is central to this issue. As police and lawmakers would later find out, this is where some towing companies begin to make significant income thanks to kickbacks from sketchy auto body repair shops. And once at the repair shop, some car owners were even told that they didn’t have a choice where they could have their vehicle repaired, with the shop refusing to release a vehicle without the consumer paying huge storage fees.

In the Toronto Star'sThis Matters podcast, crime reporter Peter Edwards says that tow truck drivers are making anywhere from $400 to $500 in bribes on certain calls. In fact, it’s estimated that a driver can make up to $2,000 per day from kickbacks alone. And while auto body repair shops are the most notable providers of kickbacks, Edwards says that physiotherapy clinics, law firms, and car rental agencies are also to blame. Just why are auto body shops greasing the palms of towing companies? According to insurers and lawyers, it's part of this widespread fraud. Following a tow, these body shops will submit inflated estimates to insurers, resulting in a significantly higher bill for their work without actually providing services. The same goes for the physiotherapy clinics which reportedly exaggerated personal injury claims for those hurt in an auto accident and the rental car agencies which charged inflated rates for vehicle loans that insurers would then reimburse a policyholder. At the front line of all of this are tow truck companies making the referrals.

The number of tow truck companies in some Ontario cities tripled in the five-year period between 2015 and 2020, causing the competitive market to become even more ruthless. In fact, it became fairly normal for drivers to spot swarms of tow truck drivers aggressively driving to an accident. Competing tow truck drivers have been seen in fistfights on the side of the road in order to have the right to a particular tow job.

"What we saw is the intimidation [was aimed towards] more independent, small, or family-owned businesses that have these garages or tow trucks. Most of what I see is intimidation not to bid on public contracts, or like, 'You don't come [into] some part of the city, you don't bid on some contracts.' That was the kind of intimidation that we were able to prove." said Denis Gallant, Montreal's former inspector general, in an interview with The Drive. "They were beating some drivers, saying 'You don't go work for a company in particular. You're not allowed to do that. Next time we're gonna beat the shit out of you.'"

Police were also involved in the matter, and not in a crime-solving sort of way. Suspected involvement stretches back to 2007 when four officers were disciplined for mishandling road collisions, having been accused of requiring vehicles to be towed and handing off the tows to agencies not on the department’s list of approved vendors (note that this was before the first available method was used.)

In July 2020, five police officers from various divisions were suspended in connection with the ongoing turf war, one of which was accused of stealing and cloning at least one of three encrypted police radios that went missing between February 2018 and December 2019. The radios were supplied to tow truck drivers who were alleged to have charged other operators a monthly fee to be broadcasted information from that radio in real time, raising the chance that they would arrive first on the scene. Information later came to light that one of the three officers charged in connection with the crime not only owned two tow trucks but also owned a car rental business.

Insurers eventually became fed up with the egregious costs from the body shops, rental car agencies, and physiotherapy clinics. They hired several law firms to begin probing the matter, even taking towing providers to court over storage fees.

Intimidation, Firebombs, and a Run for the Border

One Canadian insurance company hired attorney Lisa Carr’s firm to represent them in a case against a body shop and towing company. Carr’s job was to fight the excessive storage fees that the insurance company was being charged. Eventually, Carr’s firm began to take on more and more jobs against body shops. She claims that some companies were causing additional damage to the vehicles (unbeknownst to the vehicle owners), submitting fraudulent invoices to insurance to justify increased prices, re-VINing vehicles, and when vehicles turned out to be total losses, she found that the companies would inflate the storage fees.

Carr also confirmed that certain body shops that even took vehicles involved in a fender-bender and crashed into one another again to inflate the damage. These accusations, she claimed, were validated after investigators studied collision data from vehicle black boxes. Carr eventually became heavily involved with legal cases against shops accused of these fraudulent activities. That painted a giant target on her and her legal practice, which would eventually push her out of business altogether.

Much like the tow trucks that were ignited over the years, Carr's office was the subject of several firebombings. After the first unsuccessful arson attempt, Carr put up cameras. This caught the perpetrators on film attempting to burn down her office in January 2019.

via York Regional Police

When the fire was unsuccessful at closing Carr's practice, one of her employees was threatened at gunpoint in August 2019 while sitting in a car over lunch. A man with a handgun reportedly told the lawyer to “stop suing his friend” and walked away. Carr said that there was no indication of who the friend was, or what case they were attempting to intimidate the firm to drop. A week later, the same individual returned and opened fire on the office from the outside, failing to strike anybody inside.

Local police reportedly tipped off Carr shortly after the shooting that they uncovered a murder-for-hire plot that directly threatened her life. They advised Carr to shut down her firm, as they were unable to protect her or her staff. She did, and ultimately was escorted to the Canadian border to help her safely leave the country.

The Future of Towing Turf Wars

In early 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police, Toronto Police Service, and York Regional Police teamed up to begin fighting back against organized crime running rampant in the towing industry. In an operation codenamed Project Platinum, the three agencies focused not just on the towing providers, but also on the frauds occurring after the initial tow. What they uncovered wasn’t just fraud, but also a slew of murders, assaults, arsons, and property damage.

The task force identified four criminal organizations involved in manipulating the towing industry with criminal acts for profit. According to the York Regional Police, more than 20 arrests were made (including three individuals connected with the attacks on the Carr law firm), along with the seizure of 11 tow trucks, 41 firearms, 5 kilograms of fentanyl, 1.5 kg of cocaine, 1.25 kg of crystal methamphetamine, 1.5 kg of cannabis, and $500,000.

“Organized crime begins with an opportunity to make money and a level of greed that leads to criminality and violence,” said then-Superintendent of the York Regional Police, Mike Slack, during a 2020 press conference. “The towing industry with its lack of regulations have bred exactly that environment.”

Project Platinum wasn’t the first large-scale police raid that called attention to Toronto’s tow truck problem either. In 2019, Project Kraken also resulted in the arrest of seven tow truck drivers.

Some of the drivers were accused of driving their business vehicles in crimes including drug trafficking and robberies, even using them to smash through the front of jewelry stores. Others were linked to the territorial tow truck turf war, intertwining traditional criminal enterprises with more organized businesses.

"Some of the companies were owned by people we identified to be close [to] organized crime. They can be the bikers, like in the province of Quebec we have problems with the Hell's Angels. They try to infiltrate themselves in the legal economy and they were very present in the towing industry." Gallant told The Drive. "That was very clear. Full patch member of the bikers, owning or not owning on paper, but we knew that they were the owner of those companies, and to say that they were receiving public [towing] contracts was completely insane."

Even though Projects Platinum and Kraken have rid the streets of some criminal activity, Toronto officials seem to have quite a way to go before calling it a job well done. Both Carr and a judge presiding over an individual charged as part of Project Platinum have identified that the problem stems from what happens after the tow, meaning that lawmakers must focus on laws protecting consumers in the entire string of collision repair rather than what happens when vehicles are on the back of a tow truck.

As CTV reported, OPP made some changes last year that impact the way the agency requests towing services. These new directives established a set of baseline requirements for towing providers to meet in order to be called by the OPP, and it restricts a particular provider to be called only once per shift, per officer. The guidance also prohibits towing companies from parking vehicles along certain portions of provincial highways to curb accident chasing.

While the new guidance addresses some concerns regarding which companies can provide the initial tow and how frequently they can be called to an accident scene by police, it might not do enough to protect consumers against towing companies that still bring vehicles to preferred body shops that provide kickbacks. Consumers may find themselves facing the same problems if they call a particular towing company, or if they get into an accident on a stretch of road not protected by regulations. It's unclear if lawmakers will step in to further address the clearly recognized problem surrounding organized crime in Canada's towing industry, or what the future of towing looks like in the GTA. 

Either way, if you ever find yourself needing a tow in Toronto, be wary of who drives off with your car.

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