Once each year for 10 years, Barbara Craig-Gress and her husband have left their car in the parking lot of the Middlesex Shopping Center in Essex and boarded the bus for a weekend ski trip in Pennsylvania.
When they returned this year, their gray Plymouth Voyager minivan was gone. Mrs. Craig-Gress was in a panic.
Assuming the minivan had been stolen, she called 911. The police told her that it had not been stolen, however. It had been towed.
The reason? A "for sale" sign in the minivan window.
Mrs. Craig-Gress immediately called All-American Towing, which had taken the car from the lot. The receptionist there informed her that All-American had orders from the company that manages the shopping center to tow any car with a "For Sale" sign in the window.
"I just think it's crazy," Mrs. Craig-Gress said.
But towing company manager Rick Russell said the manager of the lot, Maryland Financial Investors, is attempting to crack down on people who leave cars there in an effort to advertise them by taking advantage of the heavy traffic along Eastern Boulevard.
"Especially on the weekends, they line them up out there," he said. "Nine times out of 10, they'll park it out there on a Friday and leave it" until Monday morning.
"It's not a used-car lot," he said.
An official with Maryland Financial Investors would not confirm that the company has specifically targeted cars with "For Sale" signs, but said the parking lot is for shoppers only, and other cars will be towed.
Mrs. Craig-Gress said their minivan was parked on the lot along with the cars of many of the 120 people who went on the trip. Theirs was the only one towed.
"We parked way in the back of the parking lot, where nobody parks, so we wouldn't take up any prime spaces," she said.
Mr. Russell admitted that if he had known the minivan was parked there only because of a ski trip, it would not have been towed. To avoid mistakes, he instructs his drivers to tow cars in the early-morning hours, when the shopping center is closed.
"This woman got caught up in a bad situation," he admitted.
Mrs. Craig-Gress is still out the $125 towing fee and an additional $15 for storage. She cannot get a refund.
"The [tow truck] driver's been paid," Mr. Russell said. "The damage has been done."