Insurance industry employees have come forward describing incidents of being “muscled” by body shops, police say, as a joint-forces operation into the tow-truck wars across the Greater Toronto Area made eight more arrests.
“What’s interesting now is that a number of people are now contacting us wishing to provide statements, including people within the insurance industry who were subject to being muscled and threatened, and attempts to bribe,” York Regional Police Superintendent Michael Slack said Thursday.
“[This] could take us in a whole other direction with the investigation, with the insurance industry itself.”
A Globe and Mail investigation in February revealed that tow-truck drivers across the GTA have been engaged in a “turf war” for close to two years, fighting for slices of the lucrative collision towing – or accident chasing – business. Over the past two years, more than 50 tow trucks have been set on fire, multiple people have been shot, and at least four men with ties to the tow-truck industry have been killed.
The York Regional Police investigation, dubbed Project Platinum, was launched in February, in partnership with Toronto Police and the Ontario Provincial Police.
The first round of arrests in the investigation were announced in May – some of which related to an organized crime group connected to the Paramount Towing company. The owner of that company, Alex Vinogradsky, is facing organized crime charges as well as charges of fraud, mischief and conspiracy to commit arson.
Police say they have identified three additional organized crime groups connected to the towing wars, but because of reduced courthouse capacity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were instructed by the Ministry of the Attorney-General to limit the number of arrests made at any one time.
Supt. Slack said Thursday that they have so far made another eight arrests in June, largely connected to individuals who were allegedly staging collisions. At least another 20 arrests are expected.
It is not necessarily the tow itself these tow-truck companies are after, but the kickbacks that accompany it. A car that is involved in a crash will likely need repairs, and the driver might need a temporary rental car, or physiotherapy. It is an open secret within the industry that some of these peripheral services will pay tow-truck drivers to bring them business. As a result, a single car can yield thousands of dollars.
Supt. Slack said they have now heard from roughly half a dozen insurance industry employees who described being “muscled” by tow companies and body shops. “It’s like that old expression: Accept the gold or the lead,” he said. “Back off or else.”
The allegations bear similarities to another tow truck-related case that was first reported by The Globe’s February investigation.
A Vaughan, Ont., law firm, Carr Law – which specialized in representing insurance companies in court cases against tow-truck operators over exorbitant bills – was run out of town last year, after it was twice set on fire and then shot up in broad daylight. Just days before the shooting, a lawyer with the firm was approached in the parking lot by a man who then hit her with a gun. He warned her: “Stop suing my friend.”
Three men have now been charged with the Carr Law attacks as part of Project Platinum.
Supt. Slack said it is clear that the tentacles of the tow-truck wars are far-reaching.
“This is as much a body-shop issue as it is a towing issue,” Supt. Slack said.
Stakeholders in Ontario’s towing industry have long called for provincial oversight and legislation. Towing is licensed in the province at the municipal level – but many municipalities have no rules.
Teresa Di Felice, assistant vice-president of government and community relations for CAA South Central Ontario, said Thursday that the roadside-assistance provider and its partners have been “working on the building blocks for several years now” of what regulation of the tow-truck industry in Ontario should look like.
“It’s kind of striking that this industry has gone for so long without it – especially in light of the fact that there have been many calls for it, over many years.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford vowed after The Globe’s investigation to crack down on criminal activity in the towing industry, though no specific details have been released about the province’s plans since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
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