Predatory towing – or "private lot towing," as the towing industry prefers to call it – has become a big issue in destination cities like Asheville, NC and Davenport, Iowa, according to the Christian Science Monitor. In Orlando, Fla., one tow truck driver uses proceeds from questionable tows to fund a personal fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Recent headlines from around the country offer a glimpse into the world of "predatory towing," where risk-taking parking outlaws share some of the blame with tow truck drivers.

In another example, police arrested three tow truck drivers after an investigation revealed that the towing service was committing auto thefts and extortion under the guise of legitimate tows, according to the arrest report.

Ron Smith, of Houston-based Compiled Logic, which tracks "non-consensual tows," says that with parking space short, communities expand, parking becomes premium, and people set up places and try to perform questionable tows.

In 2005, a clause in the federal highway bill gave states and municipalities greater authority to oversee local towing practices. That led to a tough new law in California that mandates large signage, no cash-only requirements, and no fee if a driver reaches the lot before the tow truck driver has left. A similar New York law went into effect in October, outlawing "kickbacks" from towing companies to property owners for allowing them to tow cars at will from their lots.

Now, with about 30,000 nonconsensual tows taking place in the US each day – most legal, but many not – dozens of communities are also taking advantage of the 2005 law.

Critics say tow truck operators tend to focus on areas with many students and immigrants, people less likely to squeal and more likely to pay up. A quarter of all towed cars are never claimed – often because jurisdictional issues and a lack of transparency in the system make them impossible to find.

Social forces and lack of preparation for an onslaught of vehicles into smaller cities trying to become residential and business hubs are also to blame for the problem, says Siim Soot of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But many tow truck operators say they're simply scapegoats for a more insidious problem caused by city officials failing to anticipate public parking needs – or trying to profit from high parking fees.