Your car breaks down and you’re stuck on the side of the road. As you take out your phone to call for help, a tow truck pulls up out of nowhere and offers assistance. Before you rejoice at this stroke of good fortune, ask yourself how lucky it really is.

The truck could be a so-called “bandit” tow truck, one that preys on vulnerable motorists by charging very inflated prices in their time of need.

It’s a growing problem in certain communities, such as Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, which teamed up with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) to warn drivers about the issue. According to a press release from the NICB:

“Towing charges, which should amount to a few hundred dollars, often skyrocket to a few thousand dollars once the bandit tow truck operator hauls the vehicle away from the accident scene,” NICB Special Agent Doreen Sanchez said. “The drivers may say they will take the vehicle to a location of the owner’s choice, but they then take it to an undisclosed body shop that is paying them a kickback. In addition to the exorbitant towing charges, the body shop will add on storage fees while the vehicle sits there as the owner and the insurance company are left in the dark as to where it was taken. All of this is designed to maximize the bill to the consumer.”

Related: 6 Mistakes Drivers Make After a Car Accident

To protect yourself from exorbitant towing fees, insurance company Esurance and the NICB offer these tips for drivers:

1. Find out what your car insurance covers. See if you have roadside assistance and how your insurance company handles towing in case of an accident.

2. Don’t use a tow truck unless you or the police called it.

3. Don’t let a tow truck take your car until you know exactly where it’s being taken and you have a printed price or invoice.

4. Check to make sure the company name on the truck matches the name on the invoice. And use your phone to take pictures of the truck.

5. Don’t give the tow truck driver any personal information, including insurance information. Some bandit tow operators use this information for additional scams, such as calling you pretending to be your insurer, according to Esurance.

6. If you suspect fraud, or if the bandit tow truck driver won’t leave, call the police.

Bandit tow trucks aren’t just a problem in the United States. In Canada, Ottawa Police recently tweeted several reminders urging drivers not to accept help from tow trucks arriving unbidden on an accident scene.




Related: 5 Ways to Avoid Auto Body Shop Ripoffs

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Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for Boston.com at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.