By Carter Hammett
“We’re coming for you and we will lock you up.”
These ominous words were uttered by Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Monday June 29 after the province announced it was overhauling the Greater Toronto Area’s scandal-plagued towing industry. A newly-announced task force will develop a regulatory model to “increase safety and enforcement, clarify protections for consumers, improve industry standards and consider tougher penalties for violators” said a government press release.
During the past two years, the tow truck industry has witnessed murders, arsons, shootings and fraud throughout the Toronto region.
Just north of Toronto in York Region, police announced that at least four criminal organizations had been caught up in a turf war within a multifaceted ecosystem involving kickbacks and insurance fraud at everything from auto centres and car rentals to physiotherapy clinics and others. While the province is spearheading the task force, tow truck licensing is currently regulated at the municipal level in Ontario. And that province has a total of 444 municipalities, but only 20 of those have a licensing system in place.
The Canadian Auto Association (CAA) said in a statement that they “would like to see a tow truck licensing system, clearer rules around consumer protection and the establishment of a body to oversee the industry.” Furthermore the CAA also called for regulations that would “implement criminal background checks, discourage racing to accident scenes, charging consumer sky high towing bills and fraud.”
Recently Toronto area police have laid almost 200 charges including murder and arson as rival rackets jockey for control of profits but subsequent insurance frauds as well. York Regional police stated that millions of dollars had already been generated through fraudulent billing, repairs, physiotherapy claims. But then avarice stepped in and drivers were hired to stage collisions. The increase in profits dovetailed with a need to control territory through violence. This includes at least 30 arson attacks thought to be connected to the towing sector during the past year.
The police investigation, dubbed Project Platinum, sheds light behind the scenes of the industry, including the fact that several towing companies collaborated with auto shops, car-and-truck rental firms and physiotherapy clinics to defraud insurance companies. When the insurance companies attempted to fight fraudulent claims in court, their law firm became the target of violence and extortion. A number of arrests have been made, and police also seized a number of weapons, tow trucks, illegal drugs totalling $1 million. Police stated that they expect a drop in violence following the bust. They have called on government to enact regulations for the towing industries. The Atlantic region is not entirely immune from this kind of activity. Just last year, the owner of a Sydney towing company was ordered to pay a total of $36,000 in fines and serve one year in jail.
That charge of course, is easily dwarfed by the Toronto network, but it does point to an industry ripe with corruption in other parts of the country, including a massive kickback scheme in Ottawa and in Montreal as well. Several areas throughout the US have reported similar tales.
Threats and violence are particular cornerstones of so-called chasers—drivers who make a living getting their tow trucks to accidents quicker than the competition—from which cartels gradually grew. The stories get darker.
And that’s partly because, in Ontario at least, there’s little-to-no regulation governing the actions of unscrupulous towing companies. Here, it’s important to note that while there are lots of honest towing companies out there, there are others that only care about their profit margin. It’s time for government to step up to the plate and implement legislation that invokes fairness and safety for all. That won’t address the root problems of the industry’s current issues, but at least it’ll be a start.