By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
His navy blue Chevy Equinox SUV was gone. Someone must have stolen it, John Smith thought. The gate to the parking lot was left open and someone heard noises in the wee hours of the morning on Jan. 27.
But there were no signs of a robbery. The spot where Smith’s car stood in the parking lot of the Chicago Crusader was not littered with shattered glass or broken car parts. Since moving to Woodlawn in 1964, there has never been a car stolen from the newspaper’s parking lot. And who would steal a car from a well-loved community businessman whom many call “Papa?”
Smith called Chicago police to report his stolen vehicle. Amid the confusion, Smith remembered that his car was equipped with OnStar, a security system that can locate a stolen vehicle within minutes.
OnStar located Smith’s car six miles north in Bridgeport in a gated parking lot packed with vehicles. He would be the latest victim of Rendered Services, a towing company located at 3611 S. Iron Street.
To get his vehicle back, Smith had to pay $216 despite being the co-owner of the piece of property where the towing company, Rendered Services, was not allowed to remove vehicles from the Crusader parking lot.
Yet, they came back and took another vehicle. Thirty minutes later, tried to make off with a third, but Smith foiled that attempt.
“They come like a thief in the night,” Smith said. “I was shocked.”
The incidents were among hundreds of complaints that have been filed against Rendered Services, a company that has become notorious in Çhicago. For the past four years, the company has been accused of predatory towing, for removing vehicles in a way that many described as dubious and even illegal.
It’s a practice that has become a growing concern among car owners nationwide. In the Black community, it’s a problem for many poor residents who cannot afford to pay high towing fees to get their cars back. Car owners are also charged high storage fees for every day their vehicle remains in the hands of towing companies. While frustrated towing victims are forced to pay towing fines that are rarely reimbursed, the excessive fees help tow companies reel in mounds of revenue.
Rendered Services is one of them. On March 30, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) launched an investigation to determine whether to revoke the company’s license after years of mounting complaints.
Since 2012, the ICC said Rendered Services has received 373 citations. Of these cases, 140 were dismissed, while 135 citations remain pending. So far, the ICC said there are 87 cases where victims have been reimbursed.
The ICC also announced that a fitness hearing for Rendered Services will be held, but did not specify a date. The announcement comes as the ICC considers revoking the license of another troubled company, Lincoln Towing in Andersonville, IL.
Rendered Services declined to comment for this story and the ICC’s decision to investigate its towing practices.
If the ICC decides to strip Rendered Services of its license, it will be the end of a money-making machine. In records filed with the state in 2012, the company reported $4 million in revenue and towed 22,000 cars.
Rendered Services has many clients in the Black community. From Walgreens to CVS to apartment complexes, Rendered Services’ blue and white towing signs have become ubiquitous fixtures on the South and West Sides.
During a visit to Rendered Services’ Bridgeport facility on March 30, a tow truck brought in a Toyota Camry. Less than ten minutes later, another towed vehicle was brought to the facility. Several tow trucks entered and left the facility during a busy morning.
The ICC’s investigation into Rendered Services will not be the first time their company has been under the radar. In November 2014, Chicago police raided the facility and seized 11 of the company’s tow trucks, records and surveillance equipment.
The raid came after Rendered Services drew dozens of complaints and headlines about its towing operations. Surveillance video captured Rendered Services towing one man’s car to an illegal parking spot before taking off with it. He was charged $216 to get it back.
In another case, a Chicago police officer retrieved footage from a building security camera and told a car owner that Rendered Services stole his car from the street.
On the popular website Yelp, many victims continue to vent their anger and frustration towards Rendered Services. One victim, who posted a complaint on March 7, said Rendered Services towed her car from a Dunkin Donuts’ parking lot minutes after she had gone inside to purchase treats for her daughter.
After his SUV was towed from the parking lot of the Chicago Crusader, Smith filed a complaint with the ICC and told Rendered Services not to come on the property to tow vehicles.
But, two weeks later on Feb. 18, Rendered Services returned at 3 a.m. This time they towed a Nissan Sentra that belongs to Sharon Fountain, the newspaper’s managing editor. After working 16 hours to help produce that week’s newspaper, Fountain said the experience left her drained. In addition, she had to pay $218 to get her car back.
“I was devastated because we had worked all night, and we were exhausted. I became angry when I learned that Rendered Services towed it without authorization. There was no sign posted.”
Thirty minutes later, Smith caught Rendered Services taking off with a third vehicle that belonged to a woman across the street. He stopped them and had the vehicle returned.
During this ordeal, Smith saw a new “No Parking” sign that had not been there before. It was from Rendered Services.