Rogue wheel clampers guilty of "outrageous excesses" against motorists are to be placed under surveillance by Birmingham City Council.
Trading standards officials have announced a crackdown on the activities of private security firms who are allegedly using threatening behaviour towards motorists and demanding up to #250 to release vehicles.
The council is promising to report the clampers to the Inland Revenue for tax checks and will help motorists take legal action against the firms if they feel they have been treated unfairly.
It will also support motorists who are frightened to complain for fear of reprisals from the clampers by allowing them to use the trading standards office address on court documents rather than their home address.
A campaign beginning on December 1, costing #30,000 and timed to coincide with the Christmas shopping rush, will see the council:n Secretly watch wheel clampers to make sure they are acting legally.n Place warning signs in areas where clampers operate.n Support and encourage motorists to take action in the civil courts against rogue clampers.n Take out enforcement orders against clampers persistently breaching the rules.
Wheel clampers must be licensed by the Security Industry Authority, but there is no statutory limit to the amount that can be charged to release vehicles. Nor is there any control over the size, prominence or wording of warning signs in car parks – leading to complaints that signs are often too small to be seen or read.
A report to the council Public Protection Committee puts the average charge in Birmingham for releasing a wheel clamp at #100, with #250 charged for returning vehicles that have been towed away.
Cars are often towed away within minutes of a clamp being applied in order to justify the higher fee, according to the report.
Committee chairman, Coun Neil Eustace (Lib Dem Stechford & Yardley North) said: "We have long been urging the Government to introduce laws which will bring the clamping industry to book. At the moment the sector is largely unregulated, meaning the outrageous excesses of some operators are allowed to continue virtually unchecked.
"We are determined to break the status quo and have set aside this money to tackle the issue head-on. Through a mixture of information gathering, intervention and offering direct support to those who have been clamped we are determined to drive illegal clampers out of the city."
Coun Eustace said he believed some clamping firms were operating without a licence.
"Even for those who do register, there are still no laws in place to govern issues such as minimum sizes of signage, fees or timescales before a vehicle is towed away," he added.
The council is urging the Government to introduce maximum release fees for clamped vehicles and give a regulatory body the power to ensure these are adhered to.