Justice Served On Cowboy Clampers

Who unfairly targeted Wandsworth car parkers

Cowboy wheel clampers who targeted unsuspecting motorists at a car park in Balham town centre have been hit with a big fine themselves after being taken to court by the council’s trading standards team.

Clamping firm Park Direct Ltd was prosecuted for a range of sharp practices that unfairly penalised motorists. It was fined £5,915 and ordered to pay £1,434 in court costs.

The company was clamping vehicles in a privately owned car park off Balham High Road when there were no proper warning signs on display.

When one young motorist who’d been clamped complained about the lack of signage, two uniformed employees of Park Direct pointed him to a first floor window in a building overlooking the car park that contained one small sign.

The wording on this sign was so tiny that motorists could not possibly read it from ground level.

In order to free his car, the young man’s father was forced to hand over a total of £375 to Park Direct. This comprised a £125 clamp release fee plus a £250 towaway charge, which the father was told would have to be paid even though the car had not actually been removed.

Following the incident the driver’s father twice wrote to Park Direct demanding a refund because the signage was so poor and on both occasions the company rejected his appeal. At that point he called in Wandsworth trading standards.

Its investigators found that the sign in the car park was totally inadequate and that the company was unfairly charging motorists a towing fee on top of a clamp removal fee.

As the investigation progressed it emerged that Park Direct had given trading standards officers in Hillingdon assurances in early 2010 that it would cease the practice of double charging, would review and improve signage at all its car parks and would also adhere to the British Parking Association’s code of practice. This had been drawn up by the BPA to allay public concerns over the sharp practices employed by some wheel clamping firms.

It also emerged that the Park Direct website was carrying the BPA logo as well as those of other reputable trade associations. This would have given people the impression that the company was abiding by the rules and regulations of these professional bodies.

However, the company was not a member of any of these associations when they clamped the young man’s car and was not following their guidelines.

In total the company pleaded guilty to six offences including harassment, unfair charges, failing to display adequate signs and three counts of unlawfully displaying trademarks.

Company director Emma Power told magistrates that Park Direct was no longer clamping vehicles at this car park and that as a result of the council’s intervention, the company had fully reimbursed the £375 they had charged the driver’s father.

The council’s consumer protection spokesman Cllr Jonathan Cook said: “The behaviour of this company demonstrates precisely why car clampers are so unpopular with the motoring public.

“The use of such sneaky, unfair and underhand tactics to fleece unsuspecting drivers is really beyond the pale.

“I am pleased that we were able to secure some justice for this resident and that as a result of our intervention the company has ceased operating at this Balham town centre car park.

“I would advise any motorist who finds themselves a victim of the same unfair and unreasonable treatment to contact their local trading standards department or their nearest Citizen’s Advice Bureau.”

Wandsworth residents can contact their local trading standards team by calling (020) 8871 7720 or emailing tradingstandards@wandsworth.gov.uk.

The CAB provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Call its consumer helpline on 08454 040506.

August 2, 2012