More below • What should I do if I need a tow? Tips from CAA
The first time someone set fire to Carr Law was in November, 2018.
Two months later, the Toronto-area firm, tucked between a video-game cafe and a physio clinic in a strip mall off Highway 400, was targeted again. A newly installed security system caught the perpetrator this time, as he lobbed two gas cans through the glass front door, emptied a third onto the floor of the foyer and lit a match. The office erupted in flames.
In August, after the front glass was replaced and the fear had subsided, a lawyer with the firm was threatened at gunpoint by a man in the parking lot.
“Stop suing my friends,” he told her, as he leaned through the open window of her car. It was lunchtime and the parking lot was full of cars and people. He hit her with a gun and stole her wallet before taking off in an SUV.
There were still a dozen or so people in the office a week later when an SUV pulled into the busy lot around 5 p.m. on Sept. 6. A masked man got out of the SUV, pulled out a handgun, and opened fire on the office. At least seven shots were fired.
A 24-year-old Toronto man, Qalid Abderezak, was quickly arrested and has been charged with attempted murder, extortion, robbery and assault with a weapon. But police believe he was working for someone else. While they have been tight-lipped about any leads, one thing is clear. Their sights are set on the firm’s primary area of focus: the tow truck industry.
For more than a year, a violent tow truck war has been raging across the Greater Toronto Area, erupting in fist fights at crash scenes and trucks being driven off the road as operators compete for bigger slices of the lucrative business. Dozens of trucks have been set on fire, and at least two men tied to the industry have been killed – one as he stood in front of his mother’s Scarborough home. The feuding shows no signs of abating, with at least two arsons reported in York Region during the first week of February alone.
As the damage piles up – and amid fears that the violence is escalating and targeting peripheral players in the business — industry stakeholders say it’s time for the provincial government to step in and oversee an industry that is largely unregulated and rife with corruption.
“These drivers are fighting over business the same way drug dealers would fight over drug turf,” Toronto Police Superintendent Steve Watts says.
Cars are towed every day in Ontario for a multitude of reasons, from illegal parking to breakdowns or dead batteries. But the real money is in collision towing or “accident chasing.”
A car that has been in a crash typically needs more than just a tow from Point A to Point B. It may need repair work, and the driver might need physiotherapy. It’s an open secret in the industry that some body shops and rehab clinics will pay tow truck drivers to bring them business. As a result of these kickback fees, a single car can yield thousands of dollars, and “chasers” are racing each other to every job.
“Every one of them wants that tow,” Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Doug Fenske said. “They’re willing to fight each other, knock each other off the road, drive dangerously down the shoulders – putting everybody at risk.”
In January, the OPP charged a 19-year-old Mississauga man with dangerous driving and mischief endangering life, following a road rage incident between two tow trucks. In other cases, confrontations between drivers have erupted into fist fights – and on occasion, even shootings.
After a tow, unscrupulous operators also aim to hike revenues by tacking on fees, often through fraudulent charges. Unnecessary and non-existent repair work, bogus rehab claims and inflated bills have been well documented in the auto and towing industry.
Ontario’s small claims court has been flooded with disputes between towing companies and insurers who argue that they’ve been overcharged after a crash. In many of these cases, the insurance companies were represented by Carr Law, which has specialized in towing cases under the Repair and Storage Liens Act.
In the months since its office was shot at, Carr Law has effectively disappeared, deleting all traces of its contact information off social media. Even its website has been erased.
On a recent February morning, the office’s metal shutters were drawn. A “for lease” sign hung in one of the windows, and a bullet hole could still be seen in the front-door frame. A sign on the door read “Carr Law is closed.”
The firm did not respond to interview requests from The Globe and Mail.
The Law Society of Ontario declined to offer any comment on the case. Lawyer Joseph Groia – who sits on the bench with the Law Society but stresses he does not speak for them – says that any time the justice system is targeted, the public should be extremely concerned.
“I cannot think of, in the recent past, another example of this kind of intimidation against a firm, which essentially amounts to a rather brazen attack on the administration of justice – and, frankly, on the rule of law.”
Toronto Police first acknowledged that there is a “turf war” going on in the city’s towing industry last summer, after at least seven drivers were swept up in a guns and gangs raid dubbed Project Kraken in the city’s east end.
At that point, the war had already become fatal. Lingathasan Suntharamoorthy, 36, was affiliated with a towing company when he was shot and killed inside his highrise apartment, near Kennedy Road and Hwy 401 on Jan. 12, 2019.
On April 28, driver Lawrence Taylor Gannon, 28, was shot execution-style in the driveway in front of his mother’s house around 10:30 p.m. He died in hospital later.
Another tow truck driver was shot at multiple times in a GO station parking lot near Hwy 404 and Major Mackenzie Drive on Dec. 8.
Police services across the Greater Toronto Area are working together to probe these cases, as well as a list of more than 30 arsons involving tow trucks and body shops.
Supt. Watts said it’s clear that criminal entities have infiltrated the industry. “There’s street gangs … and then there’s traditional organized crime. But in the middle, where this fits, is organized criminal groups,” he said. “It’s exclusively driven by profit.”
In the meantime, the violence has sparked renewed calls for stricter regulation and oversight.
Currently, towing is licensed in Ontario at a municipal level – but only 17 of the province’s 444 municipalities have any such system, according to CAA.
Some municipalities require criminal background checks and driving records. Many tow truck companies and automobile clubs require the same – and even offer mandatory training for their drivers. But none of this is standardized, and as a result, the industry is governed by a confusing patchwork of bylaws and guidelines that leave the business ripe for corruption.
Doug Nelson has spent the past 14 years fighting for provincial regulation of the towing industry in Ontario.
“The electrical industry is managed. The plumbing industry is managed, there are standards and regulations. Builders, carpenters – they’re managed.[And yet] the towing industry is not managed,” says Mr. Nelson, the executive director of the Canadian Towing Association, an umbrella organization that advocates on behalf of tow truck drivers at a national level. “What the industry needs is management, and … the proper way to do that is through provincial licensing.”
The patchwork municipal system also creates problems for law enforcement, says OPP Inspector Fenske, especially on provincial highways, where local bylaws aren’t always enforced. “Unfortunately [OPP officers] can’t enforce the bylaws out on GTA highways." As a result, he said, bad actors move in. “The sad part is that a lot of the legitimate companies … don’t even want to come out on the highway and get involved in this because they are facing personal threats and intimidation.”
The lack of provincial regulation also means there is no province-wide training or safety and equipment standards, and no standardized complaints process, which can make it difficult for consumers to know who to trust.
In October, Durham Regional Police launched a special project targeting fraud within the industry after officers received numerous complaints from motorists about exorbitant towing and storage bills. Investigators seized 31 vehicles and laid more than 250 charges – many of them fraud related. Among the seized vehicles were a Ferrari 488 and a BMW M4, as well as eight tow trucks, two of which police said had evidently been burned.
A provincial task force called for more industry accountability in a 2012 report that highlighted “increasingly premeditated and well-organized [fraud]” in Ontario’s auto insurance system – particularly in the GTA. Key recommendations in that report included the implementation of province-wide licensing and regulation of the towing industry through an administrative authority.
In response, the province passed legislation in 2015 that added some checks and balances, such as requiring tow companies to provide price lists and quotes to customers. The problem, Mr. Nelson says, is that these are difficult to enforce under the current patchwork system.
The government also made it mandatory for all towing companies to obtain a Commercial Vehicle Operator Registration (CVOR), which can be revoked if enough infractions are accumulated. But both Mr. Nelson and Insp. Fenske describe that mechanism as ineffective.
“You know what happens when they [rack up] too many points?” Insp. Fenske said. “They close the company and open the next day under another name.”
Many tow operators are honest and provide excellent service, he said. “But you don’t know what you’re going to get when one rolls up at the side of the road. You don’t know if you’re getting a good one or a bad one, and we have no control over which one you’re getting either."
Mr. Nelson believes that effective industry regulation must include mandatory criminal background and driving record checks, certified equipment, standardized training, proper insurance and a clear storefront location where consumers can easily locate their vehicle.
Eliminating the existing patchwork system would help legitimate drivers too, he added, by reducing licensing costs. “If you have a tow truck company in Toronto and you tow, say, in Toronto proper, North York, Vaughan, Mississauga and Markham, you have to have licences for all of them,” Mr. Nelson said. “We have one member and it costs him tens of thousands of dollars to get all the different licences.”
Mr. Nelson acknowledges that it is unusual for an industry to be asking for more scrutiny – but he says it’s necessary, not just to quash the violence but to protect consumers. “I would not call that red tape. I would call that management,” he said. “The professionals in the industry have absolutely no problem with management of the industry – because they don’t do these bad things.”
Joey Gagne, president of Abrams Towing, a 200-truck operation based in Southern Ontario, said he fears the violence is going to scare those good people away from the business.
Mr. Gagne, who is also president of the Canadian Towing Association, has already heard of cases of drivers whose families are pressuring them to leave the industry, or who are afraid to bring their truck home at night, lest it be burned in their driveway.
“If you’re somebody that’s paying attention, would you want to become a tow truck driver? I wouldn’t,” Mr. Gagne said. “It doesn’t help the reputation of the industry, and it doesn’t help companies that are trying to recruit. We already have a shortage of good operators and this just compounds that.”
In a December interview, Mr. Gagne said that his company had not been targeted in the violence. But in January he sent an e-mail to update: One of his trucks had been set on fire. “We thought we were immune because we’re not involved in that [accident chasing] business and we primarily do contract work,” he said. “But obviously something we did irritated the wrong [person].”
In his view, a crucial aspect of the towing industry that needs reform is the first-on-scene protocol that many municipalities follow: The first driver to arrive at a crash site gets the tow. The practice rewards bad behaviour, he says. “It’s abusive to the consumer. It’s a safety issue for anybody that’s on the roads, and it’s not good for the public.”
Mark Graves, president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, says the violence hurts everyone in the industry. In the past, the majority of calls the association received were from consumers complaining about service or bills. Now, he says, most are from drivers who are afraid to go to work.
“It’s changed that much in the last six months,” he said.
The incidents occurring across the GTA mirror many of those outlined in a report by Montreal’s Inspector-General two years ago on a similar towing war there.
The mandate of the IG’s office is to oversee public contracts and the awarding and execution of those contracts within the city. In this case, they were looking at the ways that organized crime had managed to penetrate the towing business.
“The Inspector General’s investigation showed that individuals with ties to criminal organizations, be it the Hells Angels, the Italian Mafia or street gangs, have been – and still are – present in the towing industry and operate in Montreal,” the 2017 report by then-inspector-general Denis Gallant said.
Through interviews with more than 70 towing operators in Montreal, the IG’s office found that collision towing is particularly plagued by corruption.
“A climate of violence and retaliation prevails in the industry,” the inspector-general wrote, citing common intimidation tactics: The surrounding of trucks, threatening phone calls, vandalism and burning of equipment.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the city’s boroughs were unofficially carved up into “kingdoms” by towing operators – an arrangement that required some companies to pay organized crime groups for protection in order to work, the report explained. In some cases, these groups were paid a flat monthly fee. In others, they took a cut of each job.
By the time the report was published in 2017, the issue was an open secret. Towing company owners freely admitted in interviews to having Mafia and biker connections. On the roads, the report noted, tow truck drivers would even show up to scenes wearing their patches or insignia.
The report also described ways that “messages are sent” when those borders are disrespected. As one driver bluntly put it: “Problems are settled with a baseball bat and the burning of trucks.”
In a phone interview with the Globe in January, Montreal’s current Deputy Inspector-General, Michel Forget, outlined some steps the city had taken since the report was published to clean up the industry.
Most importantly, he said, they scrapped their previous “first-on-scene” policy, which awarded towing jobs to whichever driver arrived first (in an effort to clear roads as soon as possible). Today, Mr. Forget said, the city has a system that allows police to call designated approved towing companies on a rotating basis. Drivers and companies who want to get on that list must now undergo stringent background checks. The new system has eliminated free-for-all accident chasing, he said, and criminal entities are slowly being deterred.
Mr. Forget stressed the importance of oversight and scrutiny. He believes there are lessons to be learned for other cities, because this is not a problem exclusive to Montreal. Whenever there is money at stake he said, organized crime will be tempted: “Whenever there are not any regulations, and whenever the police doesn’t have an eye on it, this situation [could happen anywhere].”
Back in Ontario, a roundtable was held in October at Queen’s Park to discuss the problems in the towing industry here.
Mr. Nelson, one of the industry stakeholders at the meeting, says he left feeling optimistic, but that he’s frustrated that nothing has happened since. If this level of violence doesn’t spur the province to act, he doesn’t know what will.
CAA has also long been calling for change. The company conducted a survey in 2017 that found most Ontarians support the idea of province-wide regulation for the towing industry. But the survey also found that people have very limited understanding of how the current industry works, or who is overseeing it.
Teresa De Felice, assistant vice-president of government and community relations for CAA South Central Ontario, says it is a challenging issue to engage the public on. Most people don’t give the towing industry a second thought until they find themselves in a jam.
“On Ontario’s highways, everybody else needs a permit to work. Whether you’re an area-maintenance contractor providing grass cutting services or trimming hedges, or you have an incident and need to set up a blocker truck. Or you’re a utility company that needs to access a pole,” she said. “Everybody else. ... except for the towing industry.”
For most of us, she argues, our cars are among our most valuable assets. Why aren’t we stricter about how they are handled?
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney declined interview requests for this story.
A spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the ministry “is aware of concerns regarding the recent increase in violence involving members of the towing community. We have zero tolerance for this behaviour, it is absolutely unacceptable that these activities happen in our province.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services said that ministry officials are “aware of concerns regarding the recent increase in violence” but said that a provincial licensing system is not on the table. “However the ministry is examining other options to address concerns with the towing industry,” the spokesperson wrote.
In the meantime, tow truck company owners such as Mr. Gagne are focused on keeping their drivers safe. “We tell our guys, be careful. ... If you go to a job, and it looks like it’s unsafe for any reason, whether it’s a competitor there who’s threatening you. ... drive away. Get away,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to be hurt.”
Asked about his views on provincial regulation, OPP Insp. Fenske said he is careful not to wade into the politics of the issue. But after a pause, he said that he supports any regulation that would make the industry safer and protect the public interest.
“We’ve been talking about this problem since I got on the job 26 years ago,” he said. “This is a real issue that needs to be remedied. If we don’t come up with a solution, it’s only going to get worse.”
Need a tow?
CAA has published a list of eight guidelines for Ontario drivers, known as the “Towing Bill of Rights.”
- You have the right to decide who can tow your vehicle and to what location unless otherwise directed by police.
- A permission to tow form must be signed before towing starts, unless you have an auto club membership.
- The towing company must provide you with an itemized invoice, before receiving payment.
- Final bill cannot be more than 10 per cent above the quoted price.
- If you choose, you can pay by credit card.
- During business hours, you can access your vehicle to get your personal items, while it’s stored at a towing facility.
- A tow operator must notify you where your vehicle will be towed.
- Tow operators must disclose if they are receiving a financial incentive for towing your vehicle to a particular vehicle storage facility or repair shop.