Signs posted at downtown Minneapolis parking lots warn drivers that if they park illegally, they'll be towed at a cost of $245. Or $260. Or even $280. The problem: not one of those charges is legal, according to city rules.

The city ordered a cap on towing charges three years ago -- currently $212. That's applicable for daily and monthly parking lots, restaurants, apartment buildings and any other private property within the city, said Grant Wilson, manager of regulatory services.

So are the towing companies gouging customers? Wilson doesn't think so. He thinks the signs were never changed when the new city ordinance went into effect. After the Star Tribune informed him about the signs, Wilson said he will notify all towing companies with misleading signs and give them 14 days to get it right.

Wilson said the towing companies must report their tows to the city, and a recent spot check of those records found that towing operators were charging the right amount.

"I'm pretty confident they're not charging the wrong rate," he said.

The city ordinance went into effect in 2008 and caps the tow rate at 150 percent of the city impound lot charge for vehicles towed off public property. When the ordinance was passed, that calculation came to $207. The rate is pegged to the Consumer Price Index, and has since climbed by $5.

The ordinance (349.270) adds that towing companies may also collect whatever parking lot fees are due. But it's rarely used, Wilson said, because lot owners don't want to fight with owners of towed vehicles over how long they were illegally parked.

Five tow operators are licensed in the city of Minneapolis to tow vehicles without owners' permission. These "Class A" tow operators are the only ones allowed to pull unauthorized vehicles from private lots.

A check of numerous downtown lots this week found that nearly every lot lists a higher price for towing than allowed by city ordinance. A lot at 620 S. 8th St., for example, warns that unauthorized vehicles will be towed to Wrecker Services' lot at 200 E. Lyndale Av. N. at a cost of $260 to the vehicle owner. Similar Wrecker Services signs hang at the Union Plaza lot off of Washington Avenue N., in the parking lot of North Loop Wine & Spirits, and at parking lots owned by the Star Tribune Co., near the Metrodome.

A woman who answered the phone at Wrecker Services on Friday refused to comment and said no one else was available.

The only operator who listed a fee lower than the city ordinance was Gopher Towing, which had signs hung at two downtown lots warning of a $200 tow.

The highest posted rates were those of Cedar Towing, the city's largest tow operator. At the YWCA lot off of S. 12th Street, a sign warns of a minimum charge of $280. Cedar advertises the same rate at 900 Marquette Av. S., 216 10th St. S., and other downtown lots.

The Star Tribune reported earlier this month that Cedar Towing has come under a police investigation over allegations that it has overcharged people for storage of their vehicles. City rules say storage fees do not begin for towed vehicles until the day after they are towed, but a check by a city licensing official found evidence that Cedar Towing charged vehicle owners a storage fee of $27 immediately upon towing, according to a search warrant filed in Hennepin County District Court. The unauthorized fees could amount to $100,000 a year, based on the number of vehicles towed, according to the warrant.

The case remains under investigation, according to a police spokesman.

A man who answered the phone at Cedar Towing on Friday said he couldn't speak to the media, but insisted that the company abides by the city's cap on towing charges.

"We charge the $212," he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747