Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Public Relations Disaster In Orlando, Florida (Visit Downtown At Your Own Risk) photo

In Orlando, Florida, there is a political movement afoot in the City Commission, led by Commissioner Patty Sheehan, to reign in the most abusive auto booter in the city, which is apparently "TowTruck Company of Orlando" judging by this amazing article in the Orlando Sentinel....

The article has vivid examples of bad behavior by TowTruck Company of Orlando. Also, numerous outraged citizens have posted their own comments and stories in Topix forums related to the numerous articles about the abuses by TowTruck Company, the comments dragging in other instances of predatory practices in Orlando and adding to fuel to an already fiery issue.

In fact, there is so much information about predatory practices in downtown Orlando, and so many Orlando citizens saying it is better to avoid the downtown, the issue seems to be transforming into a public relations disaster for the city leaders in Orlando.

Consider the following, from the article.

* The city was forced to tighten its rules two years ago, because of the same company. The company's owner was arrested and fined for "routinely overcharging vehicle owners trying to retrieve their cars."

* A driver for Coca-Cola had his truck booted, with an attempted shake down of $400. Despite a police order, the company refused to remove the boot and caused a "parking lot showdown." The Coca-Cola driver's company rescued the vehicle with their own tow truck, hauling it away boot and all. The driver called the towing company a bunch of "mercenaries."

* One woman was able to remove her car wheel and the boot holding it in place, escaping with a spare tire. (Clever! Angle Grinder Man would be proud) According to the woman, TowTruck Company of Orlando got its revenge by snatching the car from her driveway and forcing her to pay $400.

* A senior citizen booted while legally parked, patronizing a local bank. A family booted while sitting inside a van. A person booted while going inside a law office to obtain a parking pass.

The following comments and examples come from Topix forum posts for this article and related articles, one of which pictures the infamous booter (boo, hiss) and the other of which is called, memorably, "Don't boot me, bro."

* Outraged citizens destroy as many as six boots a week as booting victims resort to cutting, melting and freezing the devices off. (The freezing method involves using freon, then smacking the boot hard with a hammer, FYI)

* Even other tow truck companies supported the proposed rules, including slashing booting fees to a mere $22, and distanced themselves from TowTruck Company of Orlando.

* Commissioner Tony Ortiz, a former cop, said when he was on the force he saw predatory practices, including watching vehicles park illegally without verbally warning the drivers, but rather waiting for the drivers to walk away.

A commenter on the Topix forum backed up the observations of Commissioner Ortiz, noting that a lot of signs in parking lots are confusing and don't conform to regulation. According to this citizen, "Downtown Fan," locals know where to park but it is people on vacation who get towed, including a family he met from Atlanta.

* "Palmetto Bugs" of Winter Park, Florida said he was towed from the Thornton Park area of downtown Orlando five years ago, and hasn't gone back since the incident.

* "SNL" of Sanford, Florida said "this sounds like a mobbed up company. There should be a RICO investigation to see where this money is flowing. It is only a matter of time before some serious violence enters the picture." Many other posters suggested various forms of violence which could be directed against booters.

* "Angry" of Miami, Florida said "If I caught one of these (expletive) towing my car from a legal parking spot there would be blood in the street."

* "Bruce" of Orlando, Florida says he has lived in Orlando for 20 years and the downtown parking situation has always been bad. He won't take visitors downtown "out of shame."

* "Marcus" of Orlando, Florida said the Orlando Sentinel should publish the names of the businesses which use TowTruck Company of Orlando so consumers could boycott the businesses until they stop encouraging predatory towing practices.

* John R. of Lake Mary, Florida brought up the problems at the parking lot owned by St. Luke's Cathedral, a situation I blogged about earlier. Apparently, St. Luke's actually contracts with this particular company, despite practices which can be described as "devilish."

* "Haze" of Orlando, Florida complained "For all that money Orlando spent on the downtown area, all they got was some tattoo parlors, bars that cater to teenagers and 20 somethings, and a few bad restaurants."

* "Darwin" of Lakeland, Florida said, "Years ago I had by car towed from a lot near Roxy's. That was my LAST time at Roxy's. I also punched the tow guy in the face. See, I cursed him when I picked up my car, and he was standing outside having a cig. Then he came up to my car window and I punshed him in the face and drove off. Good times."

* The College Park diner of Orlando was said to have tiny little signs facing backwards, and so vague it's impossible to know what parking spots the signs reference, causing many citizens to get towed.

* On June 4, a poster called "(Teed) Off Downtowner" of Orlando wrote as follows:

I have just returned from downtown. I went to OUC to pay my bill at 5:54 pm. (Time on receipt) From there I got into my car, drove a block over, parked my car. I parked legally in a metered space at 5:57 pm. I went to the meter, knowing the meters stop at 6pm.

The meter had 4 minutes left on it, which would take me to 6:01 or 6:02. So I went to my meeting. I returned to find my car had a city parking ticket with a time of 5:55 p.m.

I have checked my clock against other clocks and the world clocks online. My timepiece is correct. I was not even in that space at 5:55, I was leaving OUC. This sort of abuse needs to stop, City of Orlando. Twenty-two dollars (for a parking ticket) is not worth the amount of patronage you will lose. You are such idiots and will bankrupt this city.

* Some posters wondered why the city government allowed this situation to fester and get out of hand since the previous incidents with the same company two years before.

* "Okie Dokie" of Orlando, Florida suggested citizens should get their own boots and put them on their cars as decoys when frequenting downtown Orlando.

* "Mango" of Altamonte Springs, Florida said an Orlando company named Johnson Wrecker towed his car, and after "Mango" paid the bill, he asked where he could leave his car for a couple hours until he was ready to pick it up. Employees directed him to an empty lot next door, then later towed the car and extracted ANOTHER $125.

* In response to the issue being raised repeatedly of which businesses in Orlando hire the unscrupulous company in question, a poster stated some of the businesses were Appleton Creative and Orlando Lutheran Towers.

* "Orlando Beautiful" wrote, "Maybe Mayor Buddy can start having his Downtown Ambassadors give people rides home on their Segway when they get booted?

* When a poster criticized the Orlando Police Department for not taking quicker, more decisive action against the towing company in question, another poster argued as follows:

"When this booting stated, OPD began doing reports, getting sworn statements, and taking photos of the boots...OPD wanted to file grand theft charges for the bootings (but) the State Attorney's Office declined to accept them saying they would not pursue charges. So what could (OPD) do at that point? Nothing except to stand by to keep the peace while some folks cut the boots off with hacksaws."

* Many citizens made the complaint that parking was difficult to find in downtown Orlando, with or without booting to complicate the picture. One poster said, "They (the city government) want us to drive there and spend our hard-earned money on crappy venues and businesses so that we can be more like the REAL big cities of Chicago, New York and LA."

"Well guess what? If there is no place to park, why would I want to do that? [...] The problem is much more complex than just to say "park where you're supposed to" because "where you're supposed to" isn't always clearly marked and is often far overpriced. Better off to just stay out of downtown."

* One poster alleged towing companies were playing a game of "can't see the parking tag," explaining that "we've had employees who have their car towed, just to mysteriously find the tag that is hung from the mirror now lying on the floor of the car after it has been towed. These are tied to the mirror. How the heck does it fall off?"

All in all, the ongoing media coverage of the controversy and the associated discussion on chat threads is giving Orlando a serious black eye. And the issue hasn't even been resolved, yet.

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