What's in a name "Lethal" jacks up emotions
There I was on a Friday afternoon at U Hall, locked out of a pickup I'd borrowed from one of my bosses and kicking myself for being so negligent. After a few feeble attempts to break in, I bowed to the inevitable and called AAA. I was relieved when the dispatcher said he'd be sending Craig's Towing, as I'd had good experiences with them before.
Sooner than I'd expected, the wrecker was there and a genial guy had practiced his arts on the door lock. Afterward, as he perched in his cab and began filling out paperwork, I decided it would be a great time to do some research.
I'd recently written a column about Lethal Wrecker Service [Fearless Consumer: “A Lethal Night at the Square,” 2/28/02], in which I learned that owners of cars towed one night last month from Ivy Square had paid as much as 70 percent more to Lethal than they would have to another towing service. I wondered what a competitor's employee might have to say about that.
"How can Lethal get away with charging so much?" I asked.
"What?" he responded, looking puzzled. I repeated the question; he grinned and pointed to the patch on his chest— which read, "Lethal Wrecker."
Oops! I explained that I'd been expecting Craig's, then went on as if this were a lucky turn of events: "So— how do you get away with charging so much?'"
Lethal always refers questioners to the Code of Virginia, which specifies the maximum charges allowed, and George— by now I'd read the other side of his chest as well— was no exception. But there's a difference between being able to charge the maximum amount and actually charging it: it's legal— but is it right?
George knew nothing about the Ivy Square situation, other than having read the copy of my article his boss had posted on the wall back at the home office.
Things got much more interesting when George went on to explain that Lethal charges the maximum only when the customer gets ugly, and listed a few of the ways customers have gotten ugly— beyond ugly— to him.
I thought back to a column I'd written for another paper in 1999, in which John Collier, owner of Collier's Towing, described the behavior of a young man who'd parked illegally and been towed.
"His whole attitude was that he's the consumer, and I was to be serving him like I was a slave. He insulted the drivers as far as their intelligence; it was the terriblest thing I've ever dealt with in my life. He didn't cuss me or anything, but he was the belittlingest— he tried to talk down to us, and he really carried on," Collier said.
Even taking that description with a grain of salt, I still wince-— and I wince even harder when I hear that consumers have threatened to kill George. And I wince hardest of all when I realize that probably 95 percent of people who get towed involuntarily do so because they were illegally parked.
Still, I'm not letting Lethal off so easily. My immediate successor at C-ville, Sarah Curtis-Fawley, wrote that she got thrown out of Lethal's Avon Street office when she went there, armed with the Code of Virginia, and tried to discuss the relevant sections. It seemed pretty clear that at least two parts of the law— the allowable storage charges and the rules for marking the parking lot— had been broken, but the Lethal team she encountered refused to answer questions.
And what about that name, "Lethal"?
"When we came to town," George explained cheerfully, "we wanted to be lethal to the competition."
Uh-huh. Seems like consulting a focus group might have been wiser.
But back to the psychodynamics of being towed. Being towed can feel like a violation— especially when compounded by that name— which causes emotions to run high and makes it harder to sort things out. But this much seems clear. When a towing company breaks the law, it ought to be held accountable. But by the same token, when a person parks illegally and gets towed, that person should pay the price— and be civil.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? E-mail the Fearless Consumer at firstname.lastname@example.org or write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902.