OGDEN -- It happens something like this: The harried shopper pulls up next to the outdoor lawn-and-garden section of a big retail outlet. The little annex has its own cash register. Avoid the crowds, dash in through the side entrance for a quick purchase. The car is gone when the shopper returns.
No trace, no notice, no explanation.
To get the car back costs about $250. Cash only. And it's all legal.
The shopper's only sin: not noticing the tow zone signs about 100 yards to the east and another about 100 yards to the west.
The new towing company in town, Slickrock, has ruffled feathers with aggressive towing from previously unpatrolled parking lots.
Matt Shuman thought he was safe parking 6 feet from the Home Depot outdoor section at the store on Wall Avenue. The long-vacant Fred Meyer building adjacent to the south and Home Depot are separated by a roughly 10-foot strip of asphalt that's part of the Meyer property.
"A ticket is one thing, but to tow me, that's excessive," Shuman said. "I was held hostage."
Shuman said he went into Home Depot, hoping the store had towed his car and that it wasn't stolen. "They said, 'Not again,' " and gave him Slickrock's phone number.
Still irate, Shuman called Slickrock and was told to go to the tow company's impound yard, 3520 Wall Ave., to recover his car. No one was there, a sign noting it was by appointment only.
"And it was cash only," Shuman said. "I called them back and asked them why they didn't tell me that, and they said it was because I wasn't being nice."
Of 879 private tows recorded in Weber County this year so far, 285 were by Slickrock Towing in this, its debut year here, according to a GRAMA request of Weber Consolidated Dispatch tow logs.
By law, a towing company must contact dispatch when it arrives at its impound yard with all "nonconsent, nonpolice tows."
The majority of Slickrock's tows were tied to the Fred Meyer lot, according to the statistics.
The Fred Meyer lot was beset with problems, according to Slickrock, from overnight parking to vandalism, theft and damage around the huge lot, but mostly to the south of the building. In one case, a light pole was knocked down.
The problems led to the tow company being hired to monitor the lot earlier this year.
Slickrock offers its patrol tow function for free. Its website notes, "We pay for all services. No charge to you ... Our services cost you nothing!"
Home Depot employees said the towing adventures began next to their store this spring and became almost daily occurrences. Employees took to announcing the license plate numbers on the store intercom when they witnessed a tow.
"People come in and they think it's us," said Cari Montgomery, an assistant manager. "Or they think their car's been stolen. We give them Slickrock's number."
Employees noticed the Slickrock tow truck parked at the Del Taco restaurant to the west, waiting.
"We just kept calling them and kept calling them, even though they're not the nicest people in the world," Montgomery said of attempts to urge restraint. "But we wanted to protect our customers.
"Weekends were the worst. They'd tow three a day."
Slickrock's signs at the north side of the Fred Meyer lot lie to the east and west ends near the entryways. There are none in the mid-block area by Home Depot.
Home Depot put up three warning signs of its own in that area six weeks ago, and the towing has since slowed.
Ogden city and state regulations say the signage is required of tow companies at all entrances or exits to the property, "or ... other conspicuous locations."
"I cringe at the thought of anyone being taken advantage of like this -- in particular, mothers with kids, the elderly, those with limited means," said Shuman, an Ogden resident who works at a Salt Lake City investment firm.
"It really is a despicable practice. The only way to stop them appears to be through public awareness and in the court of public opinion."
Edward Olsen has sued Slickrock, so far successfully, for $10,000 in damages and $215 in fees in a small-claims action in Ogden City Justice Court. Slickrock has appealed to 2nd District Court, and an Aug. 29 trial date was set last week before Judge Scott Hadley.
Slickrock towed Olsen's 27-foot boat and the truck it was attached to in March. The company charged him for a double tow, with the $214 to $250 minimum per tow increasing for larger vehicles. It billed him $800, Olsen said.
He is still vehement as he awaits his next court date: "They're absolute vultures."
Olsen had permission from an assistant manager to park the $65,000 boat on the aforementioned Home Depot's west lot while he had it up for sale. That's borne out by an Ogden police report, as Olsen called 911 after the boat and truck were towed.
Police contacted Slickrock, which claimed written authorization from a different Home Depot assistant manager to tow the boat and truck.
That assistant manager, unaware of the other assistant manager's agreement with Olsen, told police the Slickrock tow-truck driver came into Home Depot and said Ogden police wanted Olsen's boat and truck hauled away for hindering traffic on the lot, according to the police report.
The driver said he needed the assistant manager's written permission, which he gave. Because Slickrock had the written authorization, the case was not investigated further.
"This is virgin territory for them, and they're having a great time," Olsen said.
One of Slickrock's owners called him after he won the small-claims case. "He asks me, 'What are we going to do about this?' Offers to settle. I said if you think I'm going to make this easy now for you, you're crazy. I will spend money I don't have to feed this back to you."
"Everybody likes to rip on the tow guy," said Dave Kimball, Slickrock manager and co-owner, "especially when they get towed."
He estimated revenue from the 285 tows as of Aug. 8 to be about $67,000, figuring a $214 to $250 minimum per tow, depending on whether a $36 after-hours fee applies.
"By the time I caught wind of the problem, it was done, taken care of by Home Depot," Kimball said of the apparent tow trap near the Home Depot lawn-and-garden section.
"It was a problem that was fixed very quickly and with very few cars towed."
He said Slickrock opened for business in Salt Lake City in January 2011 and operates two impound lots there.
The company expanded to Ogden this year, up and running by January with one truck, one driver and the lot at 3520 Wall Ave.
Kimball said he is a co-owner but didn't want to name any others, or say whether they are from Ogden or elsewhere.
"There are some people out there who aren't happy with us," he said, "so, for safety reasons, we keep some things private."
He said company costs eating into the $67,000 revenue include $40,000 for the used tow truck assigned to Ogden, and $1,000 a month for insurance, yard rental, uniforms, cellphones, voluminous paperwork, GPS tracking and iPads all drivers carry for required uploading of tow details to state websites.
Add to that the cost of buying and replacing signs.
"This happens to us constantly, where we put signs out and we're replacing them."
The fee maximums are set by law and reviewed annually by the Utah Department of Transportation's Motor Carriers Division, which regulates tow-truck drivers.
"The state establishes those fees for a reason," Kimball said. "They know what it costs to run a business like this. Those people know what they're doing."
The drivers haven't had a raise since 2009, said Mindy Nelson, Utah Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
The motor carriers division reports in the last three months it has received five to 10 complaints against Slickrock originating from both Ogden and Salt Lake, most relating to the size of their signs, Nelson said, and the requirement for cash-only payments.
The state doesn't regulate sign size, just content and placement, she said.
The signs noticeable in the Ogden area tend to be in the 12-inch-by-10-inch size.
Kimball said his largest signs are 12-inch-by-24-inch.
"We don't regulate that," Nelson said of the cash-only mode. "That's a business practice. They apparently get burned a lot."
She said appeals of the fees are made to the Utah State Tax Commission.
Tow fees are set by the Motor Carriers Division of the Utah Department of Transportation. The Motor Carrier Advisory Board meets every August to review rates, fees, tow-truck motor carrier procedures and the certification process.
Maximum nonconsent, nonpolice-generated towing rate ("hook-up" charge):
* $145 for a "light duty" vehicle (under 10,000 pounds).
* $240 for a "medium duty" vehicle (under 26,000 pounds).
* $300 for a "heavy duty" vehicle (over 26,001 pounds).
* Other allowable charges include a $36 after-hours fee, minimum $25-a-day storage fee, $30 administrative fee and a pro-rated fuel surcharge.
* "If the owner, authorized operator or authorized agent of the owner of a motor vehicle is attempting to retrieve said vehicle before the tow truck is mechanically connected, no fee(s) will be charged to the vehicle owner."
* and ... "If the owner, authorized operator or authorized agent of the owner of the vehicle is attempting to retrieve said vehicle before the vehicle is removed from the property or scene, the maximum fee shall not exceed 50 percent of the posted rate schedule."
Source: Utah Motor Carriers Division