No car, no recourse
Vacationer returns to find his car towed, auctioned and up for sale on Craigslist — by a tow company employee
When Vaibhav Chopda returned from a six-week trip to India last month, his car was missing from where he thought it was safely parked in his apartment complex. As he soon found out, it hadn't been stolen — though he may have wished it had been.
Chopda, a 26-year-old Cisco engineer, had been mailed notices at home about his car while he was away on the long trip. Though he had paid his registration, he was, in his own words, "a little lazy" about putting the new tags on. Even though his 2004 Honda Civic was parked in the apartment's lot, it was towed for having expired registration tags.
But what happened next was even more shocking. The day he returned, June 9, was the same day his car was sold by a Santa Clara-based towing service, Auto Ambulance, at "auction" for $2,280. The Kelly Blue Book values Chopda's Honda at over $10,000.
"You're not going to get your car back," is what he vividly remembers the tow company telling him. He wouldn't be getting his dash-mounted GPS navigation system or his cricket equipment back either.
He later found his car for sale on Craigslist — apparently still at the same tow yard and being flipped by an Auto Ambulance employee — for $8,500.
Tow services have the right to recoup storage and towing expenses by selling cars at auction, but Chopda believes Auto Ambulance handled the auction illegally. Under the California vehicle code, a tow company must jump through several hoops before a car valued over $4,000 can be sold at auction, a procedure which could have provided at least 90 days for Chopda to retrieve his car.
But for cars valued at under $4,000, tow companies can follow a different set of rules which expedite the sale of cars. As documents provided by Chopda to the Voice show, Auto Ambulance valued Chopda's Honda at less than $4,000, even though its Blue Book value is more than $10,000.
Auto Ambulance refused to comment for this story.
"Sounds like maybe something weird is going on," said Danny Fortes, owner of Mountain View Towing, about the resale of the car. "Tow companies just have to be careful. If it's on the borderline we put it [the car's value] over $4,000 just to cover ourselves."
Marcus Ball, manager of the Park Plaza apartment complex on Crisanto Avenue near Rengstorff Park, where Chopda lives, said management had no idea the car belonged to Chopda. His management company had recently taken over the complex, and hadn't heard from Chopda about which cars were his. The parking permit Chopda had on his car was not up to date, Ball said.
Ball added that he felt sorry for the tenant. "When I heard about that I was sick to my stomach for three days," he said.
There was no monetary incentive for the complex to tow the car, Ball said. In fact, he said, "I shy away from towing cars" because he's had his own car's tires slashed by tenants in retaliation.
"Every time I tow a car I park somewhere else because it's not safe," he said.
With scarce parking and people leaving cars behind at the complex, some cars have to go, he said, and Chopda's qualified for towing because of its expired tags.
Ball said management didn't think twice about the car's value because non-citizens have been known to leave newer cars, and their car payments, behind when in a hurry to return to their home countries.
Chopda said he's currently seeking an affordable lawyer to take the case to court or seek the $7,500 maximum from small claims court for damages.
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com