By Andy Sheehan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — In the parking lot of the University Center Quality Inn in Oakland, the tow truck driver is a busy man.

Minutes after he tows away one pickup truck, the owners emerge from the hotel discovering its absence and run hopelessly after it. Another woman, who was in a nearby restaurant, finds her car gone as well.

“Getting a cup of coffee, eating, chilling, relaxing, and I come out here and my car is towed for some reason,” says Bria Holmes.

After calling the number on a nearby sign, they learn that they can retrieve their vehicles from a lot a few miles away, but it’s going to cost them a lot of money and grief.

“I’ve got to go to an ATM, get $200, pay it and get my car back,” said Holmes.

It’s a drama being played out every day at privately-owned lots throughout the region.

The building and business owners are within their rights having the vehicles towed, and the towing companies say they’re providing them a service by keeping the lots clear of people who want to park for free.

“If you’ve had somebody parked in your driveway, you know how frustrating that is. Nobody would stand for that,” said tow truck operator Mark Travis.

But at least one state legislator, Rep. Dom Costa, doesn’t think it is right.

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “You think people are getting ripped off?”

Rep. Costa: “I definitely think people are getting ripped off.”

It works like this. Owners of private lots want to reserve their parking spaces for customers or clients and don’t want people using the lots to patronize other businesses.

So they hire tow truck operators to keep their lots clear of interlopers; and generally, the tow truck operators keep the spoils.

But some folks feel that they’ve been preyed upon. Ray Lucas returned to the lot on Fifth Avenue after a hockey game and found his car gone.

Sheehan: “Towed away?”

Lucas: “I found out it was towed. At first, I reported it stolen because I had no idea at the time.”

Lucas and others parked in the lot after seeing an “Events Parking” sign and finding no attendant to pay. They went to the game ignoring or not knowing what to make of a “Private Property” sign. To Lucas, it’s just a scam to make money.

“It’s easier to collect $205 dollars because you’ve got to get your car out of hock than it is to pay the $15 or $20 for the game,” he said

Rep. Costa is drawing up legislation to protect unsuspecting motorists.

“We all do it, you know, here and there,” he says. “You say, I’m going to be five minutes, I’m going to run over here, there’s no place to park, and lot of cases guys are waiting around the corner.”

Rep. Costa wants to take away any profit incentive by prohibiting property owners from making money on the tows and requiring tow truck drivers to notify police communications or have the car ticketed before towing it.

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But Travis says people who park in private lots have already been warned.

“Everybody sees the signs. They know the signs are there,” he says. “They generally say they didn’t think anybody would care. They didn’t think anyone would notice.”

Back at the Quality Inn, Travis says the lot is constantly monitored on closed circuit and that violators are towed because they’ve been observed leaving the property to go somewhere else.

He objects to the perception that the public is being gouged.

“The public perception is also that we don’t pay insurance, or we don’t pay our taxes, or that we don’t have to put $1,200 worth of tires on our trucks. I mean, I believe we make enough to operate. Nobody’s getting rich,” Travis said.

Still, Rep. Costa says the public has no recourse and new protections must be put in place.

“If I stiffen the law up, if I make qualifications on these tow truck drivers, we will be able to bring a lot of this under control,” he said.