An Auckland couple whose car was towed from what appeared to be a supermarket car park were charged $295 to get it back - and say when they complained they were mocked and told they shouldn't be driving.
Anirudh Guda and his wife arrived at Countdown Mt Eden car park in Auckland's Valley Rd in the pouring rain just before 7pm on July 1 and parked their car.
The sign in front of their car said "unpermitted vehicles" would be towed but after some confusion they figured that must mean non-supermarket customers.
They dashed in to grab a few snacks but when they got out the car was gone. Nobody answered the number on the sign but they saw two Super City Towing trucks removing more cars, so called that company, who had indeed taken their car to the Amalgamated Carpark Services site on Symonds St.
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After an expensive Uber ride, Guda - a motorway civil engineer - asked staff at the yard if they could negotiate over the steep fee, as the signs were so unclear.
"They were rude to me and my wife. They were saying probably we shouldn't drive if you can't see the signs and lines...like I have a vision problem."
Guda was frustrated that the signage was so unclear. "Why can't it just say no parking for Countdown customers?" he asked.
In a photo Guda provided to the Herald, a tiny sign near the ground said supermarket parking was not permitted. Guda had not noticed that sign until the Herald pointed it out.
Amalgamated Carpark Services' general manager was on leave and no one else at the company would comment.
Amalgamated Carpark Security Ltd and Supercity Towing Ltd are both owned by Craig Edward Burrows of Te Atatū South.
The Countdown store manager Wiebe van der Veen said the permit-only parking area was reserved for other businesses near Burger Fuel and Resene Paints on the side of the carpark nearest Dominion Rd.
"It's very clearly signposted with yellow lines," he said. "There are quite a few signs up, large ones too - like door-sized signs."
He said there were 200 carparks for Countdown customers marked with the usual white lines.
"I have been at the store for three years and this is the second time I've heard of someone being towed - and we serve 45,000 customers a week. That's a very, very minuscule percentage," he said.
He said a customer paid the towing fee for another man who was towed away two weeks ago.
But, the Valley Rd carpark was notorious for predatory wheel clamping. In 2017, the Herald observed an Amalgamated staff member sitting in a car near the carpark, waiting to clamp drivers who had momentarily parked in the wrong spot.
In some cases cars were clamped in less than two minutes.
Towing and clamping are unregulated and could see victims charged up to $700 to have their car freed.
A bill meant to crack down on clampers, capping their removal fee at $100, is with a parliamentary select committee and is set to become law this year.
But it would not cover tow truck companies, which are already regulated.
It's also raised fears the law change could create an incentive to tow as that would be more lucrative for enforcement companies.
According to Consumer NZ, there is "no legal requirement for private property owners to display a warning that cars will be towed if parked illegally, or to provide contact details for the tow operator".
Tow truck companies are only meant to charge for "expenses reasonably incurred in removing the vehicle".
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff - who pushed for predatory parking enforcement to be outlawed when he was MP for Mt Roskill - told the Herald he wanted towing companies included in the law change.
Some towing and clamping companies signed a voluntary code of parking enforcement conduct in 2015 but it has been ineffective, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
The code says errant parkers should first be issued a breach notice, towed if the behaviour re-occurs, or clamped as a last resort.
Amalgamated Towing and its associated companies are not signatories to the code.
Goff said the $295 towing cost was "totally disproportionate to their offence" and looked like revenue collecting by a business out to maximise its profits.
"It appears the company has not signed up to the Code of Conduct agreed to by the industry which states that towing should only be used in exceptional circumstances. A code that isn't mandatory on the more predatory members of the clamping industry is not much use."
He wanted the wheel clamping bill in Parliament to also limit towing only to circumstances where it was necessary for reasons such as creating a hazard.