Story by Lauren Baddour
UNC student journalist
Courtesy of UNC Media Hub
Jimmy Jackson, 76, has been a regular at the McDonald’s on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill for years along with his group of friends. He says the lot is notorious for its frequent visits by Barnes Towing, which has increasingly come under fire for excessive and predatory towing practices.
Private businesses, such as McDonald’s and Carr Mill mall, have upgraded their surveillance systems to keep tabs on their parking lots and alert the tow company if any driver should leave the premises with their cars still parked. McDonald’s declined to comment.
“It ain’t always been like this,” Jackson said. “(They take) two or three cars a day.”
Complaints filed on Google reviews and on local websites, such as Triangle Blog Blog and the Daily Tar Heel, say that patrons of local shops are being victimized by large business owners and the tow companies that team up to remove cars quickly and at the owner’s expense.
Common complaints include excessive credit card fees added on to tow fees to encourage cash payments, refusal to provide names of towing employees and poor customer service.
Bethany Pryor, 19, is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and was parking at Shortbread apartments visiting a friend after hours when her car was towed around 11 p.m. While there are warning signs posted by the towing company, she said she obtained verbal permission from a staff member at the apartment’s front desk who said the lot becomes public after 5 p.m.
Pryor realized the car was towed when she returned to the lot. A Barnes Towing representative said the company was holding her car in a remote lot in the outskirts of Carrboro and that she would have to pay $250 to get it back. Feeling wary of traveling to a remote spot in the middle of the night, she asked if the fee would increase if she left the car until morning. The company representative told her she would be charged an extra $100.
“It was really sketchy and they knew me,” Pryor said. “They knew I was a young girl who didn’t know what was going on.”
Upon arrival, she tried to pay with a credit card but was told they would only accept cash only and the fee had gone up to $350 despite the company having her car for only a couple of hours.
Pryor filed a complaint with the Chapel Hill Police Department on Oct. 6 alleging unlawful business practices and refusal to take card payment. The investigation is ongoing.
She also echoes a popular online sentiment that cars with feminine-looking decals or other features indicating the driver may be a woman are more likely to be towed.
“Maybe 90 percent of (the cars towed) are women,” Jackson said. “I believe they’re scared of some of the guys they try to tow. I’ve seen them just about fist fight out here with guys.”
According to a Chapel Hill police report filed on Aug 14, a tow truck driver was assaulted at Panera Bread after towing a 47-year-old man’s car.
Jackson says he often tries to warn female drivers not to park in the McDonald’s lot and has even driven a few women out to retrieve their cars after they were towed.
Barnes Towing is facing numerous similar complaints, many filed with the police and some posted online. One review posted on Google alleges a similar experience to Pryor and claims the tow truck driver, who only identified himself only as “Number 20”, repeatedly called the woman a liar for explaining her situation and hung up on her several times.
Other lots that are frequently visited by Barnes Towing include the Carr Mill shopping center, Weaver Street Market and various apartment buildings in Carrboro.
Business owners who have spoken publicly in Facebook groups and to the Daily Tar Heel say that construction has closed other public parking lots leaving drivers with no choice but to park in private business’ lots. This creates traffic and strain on the available lots which fill up quickly.
Barnes Towing currently has a D-minus rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for failure to respond to complaints and a 2.6 star rating on Google. This is in comparison to an A-plus BBB score and 3.8 star rating for Bob’s Towing and a 5.0 star rating for Chapel Hill Towing Company.
Barnes Towing refused to comment.
The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro have tried to enact municipal laws protecting drivers, such as imposing fee schedules or prohibiting credit card fees altogether. But, these regulations were found to be unconstitutional in the North Carolina Supreme Court Case ‘King V Town of Chapel Hill’ in June 2014.
Currently, towns are limited to requiring proper signage in private lots and notice to the police when a tow company removes a vehicle, including its license plate, description and current location. The companies don’t have to alert vehicle owners.
“I’ve heard a lot of the same stories other people had about the way that towing companies are operating here in Carrboro and Chapel Hill,” said Damon Seils, mayor of Carrboro. “The more complaints we’re asked to investigate, and in particular these experiences that we’ve heard about particular groups being targeted, whether it’s young women or others, we want to hear about that so we can be talking to our state legislators and make a change.”
Fifteen complaints have been filed with the Chapel Hill Police Department since July 2023 against various local towing companies.
Seils says the best course of action for those affected is to continue to follow up with their local police department and bring the issue to the attention of the N.C. Legislature, which has the authority to intervene.
The N.C. Attorney General has not responded to requests for a comment.
UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.