The recent attempts to unveil how unscrupulous tow truck drivers operate in their efforts to commit fraud once again raises the issue of the impact of this practise on consumers and the insurance industry. It has been reported that tow truck drivers modify unroadworthy vehicles to appear as if they were roadworthy at the time of the accident, in an effort to defraud insurance companies.

Christelle Fourie, Managing Director of MUA Insurance Acceptances, explains that in the event of an accident occurring due to the vehicle being unroadworthy, it is most likely that the insurance provider will reject the consumer’s resultant insurance claim. “Conducting unlawful activities to make the vehicle appear roadworthy can be considered as insurance fraud and the consumer can face serious financial and legal repercussions.”

“While there are many reputable tow truck drivers, there are also dishonest drivers who may take the motor vehicle to an unauthorised holding area where an inflated fee is required to obtain the vehicle.” She explains that there is no legal framework protecting the consumer in this situation which leaves the consumer exposed and they may find themselves being liable for the towage and release fees of their vehicle, as most insurance policies restrict cover in these instances.

Generally, insurance policies do provide cover for the storage and release costs up to a certain limit (usually around R2 500, but this depends on the policy options taken), says Fourie. “However, the consumer is then responsible for the balance of the fee which could range from anywhere between R6 000 to as much as R20 000.”

“As a result, it is crucial that consumers make themselves aware of the roadside emergency assistance services and procedures that are offered by their insurance company in order to avoid unnecessary financial repercussions. It is common market practice for insurers to cover the full towage and release costs when policyholders make use of the specific services offered by their own insurance company.”

She says the purpose behind the roadside assistance benefit is to make the whole traumatic experience of having a motor vehicle accident easier for the client to handle. “A reputable tow truck operator will ensure the vehicle is taken to the correct and authorised panel beater, thereafter the repair and claims process will fall into place.”

Consumers should also be wary of any tow truck drivers requiring an upfront payment for towing services, says Fourie. “An authorised tow truck operator is contracted to respond to the accident scene as part of the cover provided in terms of the policy and requires no payment, so consumers should rather wait to speak to their insurance provider before making any payments to any tow truck operators.”

Unauthorised tow truck operators may listen to emergency services radio frequencies to discover the location of motor vehicle accidents in order to arrive on the scene first to get the business, says Fourie. “On arrival they will try and secure business by approaching the overwhelmed motorist and stating they are approved by their insurance provider. However, this is not always true so it is better to check directly i.e. use their own mobile phone and/or dial the number to the insurance provider directly.”

Most insurance companies provide their clients with a “Do not-tow” sticker, emergency contact number, panic button for their mobile phone or an app that includes the functionality to seek emergency assistance at the touch of a button. “Motor vehicle owners must make themselves aware of all these processes in order to avoid financial loss as a result of having to pay release or towing fees not being covered by their insurance policy.”

In motor vehicle accident situations, the benefit of having a vehicle telematics device installed cannot be understated, says Fourie. “Following the impact of the accident, the telematics device immediately notifies the emergency contact centre without the consumer even having to phone. This improves reaction time as the tow truck operator and emergency vehicles are then dispatched to the scene instantly, mitigating the risk of unauthorised tow truck drivers towing the vehicle.”

She says in the case of executive motor vehicles, it is particularly important for the owners to ensure they are dealing with approved dealers otherwise the motor vehicle warranty can be invalidated. “It is imperative that the vehicle gets to the approved dealer as quickly as possible to avoid any financial repercussions.”

“All motorists must make themselves familiar with the procedures for their specific insurance provider when it comes to motor vehicle accidents in order to avoid unnecessary financial, and emotional, strain associated with using the services of unauthorised tow truck operators,” concludes Fourie.

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