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This shopping season, watch for predatory towing

Tuesday - 11/20/2012, 5:44am  ET

WASHINGTON - This time of year, shoppers will get many warnings about how to avoid being ripped off while searching for holiday gifts.

And along with worrying about theft from their cars, shoppers also need to worry about someone watching and waiting for them to leave their vehicles: the predatory tow truck operator.

Eric Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection in Montgomery County, says some tow truck operators literally lie in wait. They hope shoppers will do one of two things: walk off - that is, leave their car in the lot while they get cash - or zip into a nearby store off the property.

"Predatory or aggressive towing is when tow truck operators go over the line," Friedman says.

Friedman says while many operators justifiably target drivers who use private lots such as commuter parking lots, others target the shopper who tries to complete more than one errand at a time or simply fails to spot signs that warn towing is possible.

Friedman says the complaints he gets are about the hyper-aggressive tow operator, the kind who swoops down to "confiscate your property, hold it hostage and not return it unless you pay a ransom, and that's basically what's going on."

Friedman says in recent years, Montgomery County has updated and limited the amounts that tow operators can charge for taking cars from private parking lots.

For example, if someone returns to find that his or her car has been put on the hook of the tow truck, he or she must pay half the cost of the "hook-up fee."

However, if the car is on the hook, but hasn't been lifted at least 6 inches off the ground, the driver and the car are figuratively off the hook - they can't can't be charged.

Friedman says the rules, reissued in 2011 in Montgomery County, aren't directed at the reputable tow operator.

Rather, they're for the predatory types who stalk drivers who misread a sign, or who mistakenly think a vacant lot without a fence or other obstacle is for public use when a business isn't operating.

Click here to see the rules and rights.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @KateRyanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)