On Saturday morning, on her way to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival at the Loews Hotel, Laura, a CL freelancer, parked in the lot across from the hotel. A man presenting himself as the person on duty at the parking lot pointed to the sign that said $10 parking for the entire day, took her $10, and gave her a voucher to leave on her dashboard to prove payment had been made.
Later that afternoon, when she returned to her car, she found it booted. The voucher she had purchased from the man apparently was not legit — she'd been scammed, along with a number of other festival-goers. The booting company, citing the fact that they don't own the lot and aren't responsible for making sure parking runs smoothly, had little sympathy. Damage: $75.
I also received a boot on my car on Saturday. Unlike Laura, I paid at the machine and displayed the correct voucher on my dashboard. But like Laura, the $75 fee to have the boot removed from my car felt like just as much of a scam.
For years, private parking lots in Atlanta and Decatur have been a kind of cash machine for sketchy companies that boot cars and demand a fee to remove them.
My mistake was to read my voucher at face value — the ticket issued by the machine where I paid said that the voucher was valid until 11:49 p.m. When I asked an employee of Advanced Booting at 11:30 p.m. why I'd been booted, he replied, "Because you bought that ticket this morning." He claimed that because I'd left and come back, the "valid until 11:49 p.m." statement on my ticket was not applicable. When asked where that rule was posted, he pointed to a temporary sign held in place with tape near the ticket machine. Neither the "terms and conditions" statement on my ticket nor the machine itself made any mention of such a rule.
This is a common story, one we hear all over Atlanta. From the portable sign behind the Tabernacle that advertises $6 parking for a lot that actually charges up to $20 to trolls who sit waiting for unsuspecting tourists to misunderstand the rules, booting in Atlanta is a vulture-like business.
Worse than these stories, which are practically limitless, is the fact that there is virtually nowhere to turn if you've been wrongly booted.
In this particular case, the land is owned by Dewberry Properties and leased by B&H Parking. Advanced Booting, in turn, contracts with B&H for the privilege of booting your car (no incentive for fairness there). This separation provides for a kind of no-fault game where none of the parties are responsible for bad signage, lack of supervision or over-eager enforcement of poorly communicated rules.
A call to Advanced Booting manager Mike Jacobs was disheartening. When asked what a consumer should do if she felt she'd been unfairly booted, he replied, "There really wouldn't be a disconnect about what the rules are. Either they pay to park or don't pay to park." In other words, Advanced Booting never makes mistakes and there is no recourse for the victim.
After hours of research and a number of phone calls, a sergeant with the APD's License and Permits division confirmed that it's appropriate to call police if you feel you've been improperly booted. Whether a citizen or tourist would think to do this, and what the outcome might be, is another question.
The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival went off almost without a hitch. Hundreds of visitors enjoyed the cuisine, hospitality and smooth management of the city's newest marquee event. But the insane booting and scamming that accompanied it left a stain on many people's experience of our city. With street parking — particularly for longer than two hours — becoming increasingly rare due to PARKatlanta's aggressive metering, private lots are more a part of our lives than ever. The fact that Atlanta allows this underhanded, dishonest, just-shy-of-criminal activity to go on unmonitored and barely regulated does a gross disservice to the folks running legitimate businesses and festivals with the aim of making our city a friendly destination. But it also impacts the rest of us, the full-time residents who deserve to live in a city where scamming is neither legal nor tolerated.
Besha Rodell is CL's Food & Drink Editor