Bamboozled: Victory for one, refund for all

BB brandingHoboken will be opening the city coffers to reimburse tens of thousands of dollars to more than 3,200 drivers who were overcharged when their cars were towed from city streets dating back to December 2012.

It’s all thanks to the complaint of one driver.

Last March, we shared the story of Jerry Chiara, whose car was towed by John’s Main Auto Body of North Bergen while officials tried to clear vehicles from the streets of Hoboken for plowing in the wake of a January snowstorm.

Chiara showed up at the site with his keys, so according to the Predatory Towing Prevention Act, his car should have been released.

Instead, it was hooked up and towed, and Chiara was left with a $274.20 bill. A close look at Hoboken’s towing ordinance showed that many of the charges imposed by the tow company were higher than they should have been.

Two days after our story was published, Hoboken passed a resolution to give a $20 to refund more than 3,200 drivers whose cars were towed in the city dating back to December 2012. That adds up to more than $64,000 that was wrongly collected and is now heading back into the pockets of drivers.

51214This one particular overcharge was a clerical error, the city said: What should have been a $25 service charge was automatically billed as $45. The error has since been corrected in its computers, the city said.

For starters, the city will refund money to 2,322 drivers who had easily identifiable information and New Jersey license plates. The others towed vehicles were from out-of-state or from leasing companies and will require more legwork to track down, Hoboken spokesman Juan Melli said.

“The only way the city can issue a check is by entering each individual into the system as a vendor,” Melli said. “That process began several weeks ago and was completed (last Wednesday) — 2,322 individuals were entered into the system — and we expect purchase orders will be mailed to individuals within a week.”

But wait. There’s more.

Melli said the city is going through those tow receipts one by one to look for other errors.

“As we’re doing with the $20 administrative fee, the city will similarly be issuing refunds for those who were charged an extra $30 for storage,” he said. “It won’t be exactly the same set of people as those getting the $20 refund because it will apply to a subset of people, but not to everyone, so I can’t tell you how many people that will be.”

If only a quarter of the drivers were wrongly charged the $30 fee, that would be $24,000 more in refunds. If it’s half the drivers, we’re talking $48,000.

When you add it all together and consider that some drivers may have been overcharged for other fees — like Chiara was — the total refunds could easily reach $100,000 or more.

Melli said the determination and scope of the overcharges will require a review of each individual receipt, which will take place once the current review is done.

And yes, that’s going to take some time.

In the meantime, the towing company that took away Chiara’s car has received a slap on the wrist from the city.

“John’s Main was served with a notice of suspension on April 16 and will be serving a three-day suspension of their license from May 13 to May 15,” Hoboken’s Melli said. “This was their first offense, and we have only received one complaint regarding John’s Main at this time.”

He said that part of the reason for the suspension was because the company did not decouple Chiara’s vehicle when Chiara arrived with the keys.

The city will be providing a full refund to Chiara.

Chiara was pleased to hear it, but to him, it’s never been about the money. It was really about fighting city hall.

“It’s rewarding to me to see that the time and effort put into this process is bearing fruit,” he said. “A lot of times in life you attempt to right wrongs, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect.

“Apparently in this situation, there’s been an ongoing mistaken process of billing people wrongly and that process now will be rectified. That makes all the time and effort worthwhile.”

Amen, brother.

We’ll keep you posted on the case, and let you know how many other drivers are getting refunds.

If you have a question or complaint about your own towing experience in Hoboken, you can email, or call (201) 653-1919.