He looked out the window shortly before 6 p.m. and saw tow trucks getting ready to haul away cars parked on the street — including his Ford Fusion.
Chiara said he went outside and saw his car was parked in a snow emergency zone. The tow truck driver had just begun to hook up his car, he said.
“After a back and forth conversation with both the Hoboken parking representative and the towing company representative and despite my standing there with my keys, they insisted on putting my car on the flatbed and taking it to the pound,” he said.
The tower was John’s Main Auto Body in North Bergen — a company that’s been the subject of consumer complaints and lawsuits. It was also the loser in disputes with Hudson County and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority about towing contracts.
“Obviously, I was frustrated and annoyed,” he said. “But my issue is not with the towing, but the charges incurred.”
Nearly 10 inches would fall in Hoboken that night, and by 8 a.m. the next morning, Chiara went to pick up his car.
The bill was $274.20 — the result of mistakes made both by Hoboken and the towing company.
Chiara paid it and drove away, but later, he reviewed the bill and thought he was wrongly charged. As part of his research, he filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with Hoboken for a copy of the contract with the tow company. The request was denied, with the city clerk saying there was no such document.
That’s when Chiara contacted Bamboozled.
“If this is a case of manufactured additional charges, this Bamboozling is extensive,” he said, noting that the tow company clerk told him the company towed 100 cars on that day alone. He figured if he was wrongly charged, others may have been, too.
“It is vital, as far as I am concerned, to get to the truth relative to all the people being towed in Hoboken,” he said.
STUDYING THE PAPERWORK
We reviewed the bill and other paperwork, and then we took a close look at the Hoboken ordinance that covers towing.
We also looked at the state’s Predatory Towing Prevention Act, which says if a car’s owner appears during a non-consensual tow, the tow truck driver must release the car if asked. If it’s already been hooked up to the tow, a decoupling fee can be charged.
If Chiara’s account is right, his car never should have been towed because he was there with his keys.
In addition, there were problems with the bill.
First, the Hoboken ordinance says any tow bill must include the time at which the towed vehicle arrives at the tow company’s storage site. That time would confirm how long the car is in storage so the proper storage fee can be assessed.
There was no arrival time on the bill, but it did say the car was released at 8:32 a.m. on Jan. 22.
Chiara was billed $60 for storage charges at a city-approved rate of $30 per day, but his car was only at the storage facility for about 14 hours.
The city ordinance says storage time is based on a full 24-hour period: “For example, if a motor vehicle is towed to a storage facility at 7 p.m. on one day and the owner of the motor vehicle picks up the motor vehicle before 7 p.m. the next day, the towing company shall charge the owner of the motor vehicle only for one day of storage.”
Next, there was a $125 charge labeled “flatbed/mileage.” That’s the correct fee per the ordinance, but the regulations also say: “A licensed towing service that engages in towing at the request of the City shall not charge for the use of a flatbed tow truck if a motor vehicle can safely be towed in an upright position by another type of tow truck, even if the private property towing company chooses to use a flatbed tow truck for the tow.”
Chiara said his Ford Fusion wasn’t boxed in by other cars, and the vehicle that was in front of his had already been towed. In addition, the car was not blocked by plowed snow or other obstacles, he said. That means a regular tow truck could have been used, but the tow company chose to use a flatbed. So per the ordinance, the tow charge should have been $100.
Then there was a “transmission disconnect” fee of $40.
The ordinance says the fee “shall be charged only if a motor vehicle is locked and the towing company is unable to obtain the keys for the motor vehicle, which shall be a maximum flat fee of $40.”
But again, Chiara said he was standing at the tow site with his keys.
Next, there was a “service charge” of $45. There is nothing in the ordinance that refers to an allowable “service charge.”
The final charge, sales tax of $4.20, was not in question.
The state Division of Consumer Affairs has eight complaints against John’s Main, with allegations focusing on billing disputes and excessive charges, spokesman Jeff Lamm said.
We reached out to Hoboken.
One hundred cars were towed from city streets on Jan. 21 because they were parked on snow emergency routes, and 42 of those were taken by John’s Main, city spokesman Juan Melli said.
Melli confirmed what the ordinance said: that the time the vehicle arrives at the lot should be recorded, that the fee for a flatbed should only be charged if a flatbed is necessary, and that the transmission disconnect fee should only be charged if the vehicle is locked and the keys are unavailable at the tow site at the time of the tow.
And that service fee?
“The only $45 fee allowable under city code is an administrative fee in cases where there are more than three trips to the vehicle in storage,” he said.
He also confirmed our belief that Chiara was charged double for storage.
“If a vehicle is towed at 6 p.m. and is picked up at 8:32 a.m. the next morning, the storage charge should only be $30,” he said.
Melli said the city takes complaints very seriously, but it needs a written complaint to “evaluate if it is appropriate to file charges and potentially suspend or revoke a license to help deter something like this from happening again to anyone else in the future.”
MORE TO LEARN
This isn’t the first time John’s Main Auto Body’s reputation has been in question.
According to public records and press reports, four companies owned or co-owned by John Appello — the owner of John’s Main Auto Body — submitted proposals to win lucrative spots on Hudson County’s tow rotation list. A county attorney in a public document called the move an attempt to “perpetrate a scam” by circumventing county rules, which only allow for one company owned by the same person to apply. All four firms were disqualified, and when Appello challenged the ruling in court, the county won.
John’s Main also went to court against the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which denied the company’s pre-qualification to submit bids for towing because of numerous deficiencies. John’s Main lost all of its appeals, records show.
The company also has an “F” rating by the Better Business Bureau for failing to respond to three complaints.
Appello has eight businesses at the same address, records show, including a law firm, several tow companies, a holding company and another firm whose business is listed as “general.” Interestingly, none of the eight are John’s Main Auto Body.
John’s Main Auto Body was named in nine lawsuits since 2012, and John Appello was named in six others since 2012. Main Towing Company, one of the firms associated with Appello and registered at the same address, was named in another.
Another twist: there are two John Appellos — one who is an attorney, and one who is involved in the tow businesses. The state filings are not clear which Appello owns which businesses.
The Appello of the tow shops didn’t return our calls, but we reached attorney Appello via email. He refused to clarify his relationship to the other Appello but said they were related, and that he serves as in-house counsel for the business.
When we asked about Chiara’s bill, he said the tow charges are generated by a system called AIM, which he said is controlled by Hoboken.
“Hoboken generates the receipts which assures customers are billed properly,” he said. “The AIM program calculates all charges and the towing entities are bound by same. The $45 charge is an administrative fee that Hoboken receives.”
We took that back to Hoboken, which said Appello’s explanation was not accurate.
Hoboken’s Melli said the system is used “to specify the fee amounts that tow licensees should charge for various services; however the specific charges that are billed to the customer are selected by the tow company. The city does not have access to the invoices or receipts generated by tow companies.”
Appello, however, said that’s not how it works. During some back-and-forth in which we detailed the city’s explanation, Appello said the explanation was wrong.
We went back to Hoboken with Appello’s concerns.
“The tow operator would manually add flatbed or tow disconnect fees into the AIM system. The city does not enter these kinds of fees,” spokesman Melli said.
He said the AIM system does automatically add the city service charge and the storage charge, and in review after our inquiries, the city found some errors on its part.
What should have been a $25 administrative fee was entered into the system as $45 — a clerical error, it said — and that’s since been reprogrammed into the AIM system.
Melli also said: “The system may have had a bug which computed storage fees based on calendar days rather than 24-hour periods, but we believe it has since been corrected.”
But the rest of the fees are generated by the tow company and are not automatic, Melli said.
“We will be investigating this and auditing our tow licensees,” Melli said.
And on wrong fees that could have been Hoboken’s error, the city is promising action.
“We appreciate this being brought to our attention and will be reimbursing everyone who was overcharged as soon as possible,” Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said. “We want to hear from anyone who may have been treated unfairly by any tow companies we work with so we can investigate the matter and hold our licensees accountable for their actions.”
As for Chiara, he’s filing written complaints with Hoboken and with Consumer Affairs. We’ll let you know what happens.