Pauline Tawney just stopped to pick up season passes to Family Kingdom.
She only left her car for a minute, she said. Her errand was so quick, she left her purse and medicine in her car.
When she came back, though, her car was gone.
"I thought with a handicapped sticker they couldn't tow me," she said, "but I didn't realize it was a private parking lot."
It's not an uncommon scenario in Myrtle Beach. Last year, nearly 5,000 cars were towed, according to records from the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
Most of those occurred in the summer months, from May through August. Those months averaged 675 tows each, while months like November and December had fewer than 200 tows each.
Hotels and restaurants contract with a variety of towing companies from around the area, and the tow truck drivers patrol the lots for which they are responsible. Many times, no one even needs to report a case of illegal parking - the tow truck drivers are on it before most people even notice.
"We go by and make sure people are parked where they should be and that no one is parked where they shouldn't be," said Chad Yerkie of Big Dog Recovery.
But that monitoring leaves a bad taste in some people's mouths, even though it's legal.
Tawney said her granddaughter also was towed after she parked in a hotel parking lot and ran in to get her paycheck. A few minutes later, the tow truck driver was already there.
"Uncanny, isn't it?" said city Manager Tom Leath. "They park down the street. It's legal. It's ugly, and we don't like it, but state law allows it. We cannot stop it."
The state allows private property owners to tow cars that are illegally parked and requires that private parking lots have at least one sign letting people know it's private and that violators can be towed.
The city requires that the sign has the towing company's name on it so people know who to call if they get towed, Leath said, and it also regulates the towing charges. Tow truck drivers are also required to call the police department within half an hour of towing a car so that the owner can find his or her car.
A non-consensual basic tow in Myrtle Beach can be no more than $90. If the driver has to use a dolly, that's an additional $30. And if you get back to your car before the tow truck driver leaves with it, you can pay him or her a $30 no-tow fee. So if the driver tells you to give him $30 and he won't tow you, it's not extortion, "he's actually saving you $60 by not towing you," Leath said.
The basic towing fee covers car storage for the first 12 hours. For every 24 hours after that, there's an additional $18 charge.
Tawney said she immediately called the towing service when her car was taken, mainly because she needed her medicine, which was in her car. She said she was told the driver would be right back with her car, but took three hours. And it cost her $85 for the tow and $85 for the driver to bring her car back.
"These people are ripping you off," she said.
Myrtle Beach officials log between 10 to 20 towing complaints a year regarding fees, damage to a towed vehicle or from people questioning whether tows were legal, said Myrtle Beach police Investigator Bryan Murphy.
Of those complaints, Leath said, about 10 percent turn out to be in the car owner's favor.
There are 32 towing companies authorized to tow vehicles in the city limits, Murphy said. The police department contracts with Auto Body Works to tow vehicles ordered by city police and officials.
The other companies authorized to tow in the city limits must have a business license and have their vehicles inspected along with paying an inspection fee, Murphy said.
The city does not collect any money from the towing, Leath said.
Yerkie said illegal-parking tows are pretty evenly split between residents and visitors. He said he doesn't really understand why people would get towed, because each parking lot has a warning sign.
"There is some responsibility on the part of the person parking," Leath said. "Some people will park anywhere - even right in front of a no-parking sign."
Contact LORENA ANDERSON at 444-1722.