Takin' a Ride

The Repo life isn't like what you see on TV

When car repossessions go wrong, they go wrong in a spectacular fashion. There's even a TV show about it. If you don't watch reality TV, maybe you caught a similar story on the local news recently.

If a bank or a buy-here-pay-here car lot owns a vehicle's title, Ohio law permits them to repossess it after as little as one late payment. A professional recovery agency will charge around $385 to take a car back. "Bozos will do it for $150," explains a former repo man who asked to remain anonymous. Last month, a Cleveland lot hired an amateur to get back a '99 Oldsmobile Alero. And soon a mom was bloody, and her child was gone.

According to the police report, on September 18 around 9:30 p.m., Keep It Moving Auto Sales owner Ronnie Simmons Jr. was scouting East Cleveland looking for the delinquent Olds. In Hough, he spotted the car and gave an amateur would-be repo agent duplicate keys to the vehicle. The hack repossessor jumped in the vehicle and started it, not noticing a toddler in the back seat. The investigation is still pending, but according to one account, the repossessor backed out of the driveway, driving over the shouting mother's feet. The frantic woman grabbed the vehicle and held on as long as she could as her feet were shredded against the pavement. Blocks later, the driver abandoned the car, and the toddler was returned home safe, as was the vehicle.

The popular truTV show Operation Repo presents even worse misadventures in repossession. The program, a retitled version of Telemundo's Operación Repo, claims to chronicle the action-packed exploits of a Los Angeles recovery agency. In every episode, its workers fight their way through tough neighborhoods in California's San Fernando Valley, ducking thrown bottles, brawling with bewildered car owners, and holding pimps and escorts at bay while attempting to hitch a vehicle and drive off. When debtors cross the line, the burly repo men aren't above picking them up and tossing them into dumpsters.

The nonstop drama quickly becomes unbelievable, and it probably is — a disclaimer at the beginning says, "The stories that are portrayed in this program are based on real events." So are fishermen's tales. But, unless you're a TV producer, there's no money in letting a repo go bad.

"[Operation Repo] is so miles away from the reality of what we do," says Mark Lacek of North Star Recovery, a 30-year veteran and former editor of trade magazine Professional Repossessor. "I always say I'd rather hire an unemployed marriage counselor than a black belt. If you do get into any level of confrontation, you need to be able to talk to people."

The job calls for wits, persistence, patience, respect, even some charm. Bulging biceps and tattoos are optional.

Larry (no last names, please) repossesses cars from Cleveland to Canton. A bank may send him as far as Pittsburgh to retrieve a vehicle. From afternoon through late night, he prowls Northeast Ohio in a gray Ford XLT tow truck that boasts 246,000 miles and counting, guided by a stack of work orders on a clipboard filled with paperwork from a half-dozen accounts. He's not a fan of Operation Repo.

"That's the biggest bunch of crap," says Larry, an Air Force veteran with a buzz cut. In the military, he learned to drive different vehicles, remain vigilant and keep a civil tongue. He's been in the recovery business for less than a year, and his Air Force experience is serving him well.

"We don't want to come off [as] unsympathetic, ruthless individuals," says Larry. "You try to give them respect as a human being, and hopefully you get that back. Sometimes you don't."

It's late afternoon. For his first stop, Larry is looking for a Chevy Cavalier. He drives to a ranch home in the working-class Canton suburbs. There's no Cavalier in the driveway. Still, he parks the truck, knocks on the door and stands three feet back from it, waiting. No one responds. In the driveway sits a Chrysler convertible with temporary license plates. People often trade in delinquent vehicles for one with a fresh record. This account could take more digging. The knocks go unreturned. Larry takes some notes and moves on.

Agents like Larry represent one side of repo work. On the other side, recovery professionals are a combination of detective and bill collector.

It's not a nine-to-five job, but over the past decade, the business has become increasingly corporate. When your client is a giant bank with enough resources to finance thousands of cars, it expects a certain amount of professionalism. Throwing customers in dumpsters is frowned upon.

Amy Bednar, co-owner of Cleveland's Relentless Recovery, which has six offices across the state, is proof you don't need to be a hulk to get the job done. She stands, in her words, "five-foot-zero." She and her business partner, David Ziebro, started off without a truck. At first, they'd work with just small lots. Owners would give them duplicate keys, they'd drive around, find vehicles and bring them back. Bednar drove a tow truck for years and found that people generally respond well to a petite blonde. Ten years after breaking into the business, she runs the Cleveland office, using her knack for investigation.

For a typical domestic-vehicle repossession, the repo man has a good idea where to start. If payments are overdue and a client stops taking the bank's calls, the lender will contact a recovery agency or broker and issue a repo order. The repo agency combs through the paperwork, finds an address and references, and starts looking there.

Around half of repossessions are "skips," accounts where the person no longer resides at the address on the loan paperwork. In skip traces, the repo office becomes a detective agency.

Recovery is a 24/7 business. When you're new and trying to establish yourself, you might spend 18 hours a day in a tow truck, on the move. An assignment might involve driving around the hills of West Virginia for two days, or a trip to Indiana and back. And if you turn down work, you won't get the next call. It's a lot of driving, talk radio, Mountain Dew and gas-station food.

"You have to be part car thief, part poker player, part driver, part attorney, part detective, part psychologist — and a businessman the whole time," says Ziebro.

For his next account, Larry is looking for an '01 Ford Taurus. He drives out into the country, steers off the road and heads down a long, winding gravel driveway through woods to a farmhouse. A visitor and his truck could disappear on a big property like this. Larry's not worried. He's been here before, looking for a different car. A garage sits next to the house, door closed. But in Ohio, garages are one of many legal gray areas for repo men.

Like most businesses, recovery has regulations, laws and protocols that professionals have to follow. Or should follow.

Some states, like Florida and California, license repossession agencies, but Ohio doesn't. Cleveland has stricter regulations than the neighboring communities: Tow trucks need to have a permit, and agencies have to notify the police department when they're reclaiming a vehicle, so that when a citizen calls and says her car is gone, cops don't waste time taking a stolen car report.

The same federal law that prohibits banks and agencies from releasing information about clients' debts prevents repo men from saying too much; they can ask neighbors where a car or owner is, but can't tell them why they're looking. In Ohio, repo men can't bring a police escort: It's an unfair advantage.

Larry drives to a nicer area of Canton suburbs. He drives past a house and doesn't see a car. He gets out, knocks on the door and notices that the house appears vacant. The mailbox also looks empty, and he peeks in window. The house is empty. He does a couple "door knocks" — brief visits to neighbors' houses — and asks some carefully phrased questions.

Repo men have an arsenal of tricks and tools, and they won't talk about most of them. Most of the recovery trade groups prohibit members from talking to the media for fear they'll divulge secrets. But most of the work stems from the simple fact that everyone leaves some kind of trail.

A big agency might be plugged into a national electronic network that monitors license plates or vehicle identification numbers. A small operator might be limited to his wits. Most insist it's best to be as forthright as possible. Others prefer to be a little more slippery.

A former repo man recalls a favorite scheme: If you call loan references and tell them you're looking for their shifty brother, you won't get far. But if you call and say Mike entered a drawing a couple months ago and won $100 worth of Domino's pizza, they're gladly give you his address, phone number and work schedule.

As your skill set develops, so do your clients. Once he's proven he's trustworthy with cars and motorcycles, a successful recovery agent might eventually have the opportunity to take aim at bigger game.

Lacek, the 30-year veteran, spent 15 years as a licensed private investigator. He cut his teeth repossessing cars in Cleveland and moved on to "high-dollar collateral." In September, he repossessed a tractor-trailer full of fitness-center equipment. Then he spent a weekend in Baltimore, reclaiming two trucks and six trailers. Before that, he traveled to Kentucky looking for three giant Terex articulated dump trucks, which was like parachuting into enemy territory without a map. He spent a week talking to people, asking questions. Eventually, he "buddied up" to a couple locals. Finally, he found the trucks, rented a lowboy trailer and beat a hasty retreat.

"When I'm looking for someone, I find someone who loves them or someone who hates them," says Lacek. "Either way, they'll tell me about you."

Repo ethics span the spectrum. Allied Finance Adjusters, one of six trade groups for recovery professionals, has a 10-point code of conduct for its members that touts respect, loyalty and fairness. Laws grant certain rights to the repo agent and to the debtor. Agencies have to provide debtors a chance to reclaim their personal property from the car. Or they should. Some smaller operators and part-time repo men who are inclined toward short-term gain do a brisk trade in selling car stereos. Curious repo men rummage and find a window into people's world, discovering interesting items like a preacher's stack of unpaid bills, or scads of peanuts and bacon all over the floor. One former freelance repo man remembers finding a briefcase full of weed and recalls others keeping tools from a vehicle.

"You have access to perks," he says.

Larry's working his way toward Cleveland. He stops at a trailer park in Tallmadge, looking for a recent-model Hyundai. He finds the home, and the car, parked just off a four-lane road. Normally, he'd pull in front of it, and hook it up to the truck; at that point, it would be legally his. A veteran driver can hook and extract a parallel-parked car at a 90-degree angle. But Larry is newer, traffic is heavy and he doesn't see a need for dramatic measures. He parks by the car, blocking it in. Then he gets out and knocks on the door.

A graying man in a T-shirt answers the door. He explains that his wife lost 50 hours from her job last month, and she's not on the schedule for the next two weeks. He hands over the keys without incident. The car is already cleaned out, like every car he takes tonight. Larry says 90 percent of his cases are like this one.

"There's nobody out there that doesn't know we're coming for them," he says. Once the car is secure, Larry's shoulders relax as he drives off. Debtors usually tell him more than he needs to know. Listening to it is part of the job. If you listen long enough, he says, even a tense confrontation deflates.

"You have to be respectful in any situation you get in with your employees, or the customers or clients you're trying to collect from," says Bob Nicewander, president of Canton's Central Ohio Recovery Inc., a recovery business that specializes in skip-tracing and sells repossessed vehicles at its own auto auction. "Maybe people lost a job. They might be en route to losing a house, or divorced. Or just lost a child to leukemia and spent all their money on the kid. You just don't know what the situation is."

Nicewander says he has "an outlined set of parameters" for his agents' conduct. He doesn't permit them to carry guns, and he always wants them to talk first. Talking, he says, can prevent a repossession in the first place.

In fact, in this economic climate, banks are having a hard time selling repossessed cars. For a car that's five years old and five months overdue, a bank might lose money by repossessing it. Many lenders are happy to accept monthly payments that are a fraction of what's owed. Like a full bear, a lender won't come after you unless agitated.

"The biggest thing [to prevent a repossession] is stay in communication with the bank," says Nicewander. "If you call them and say you lost your job, they're apt to work with you a tremendous amount of time before they take your car. When they can't get in touch with you, that's when they get nervous."

The Federal Reserve's current report estimates the amount of installment loans in this country as $1.3 trillion, and 60 percent is in outstanding auto loans. A bank may average a 2 percent default rate; in a bad economic climate, it may double. Nicewander's agency operates with six trucks, and it will repossess 300 cars in a good month. (In a bad one, he'll recover 100.)

Everyone assumes repossessions would be on the rise during a recession. None of the repo people Scene talked to reported a sharp spike. Bednar says her business is up 10 percent. Nationwide, it's down.

"When in a recession, one thinks the recovery industry would be busy," says Art Blanchette, past president of trade group American Recovery Association. "On the contrary. Banks are more apt to work with people when they aren't loaning money. No car loans, no cars to recover."

But the Cash for Clunkers program created a whole new wave of loan payments, many for people who didn't have one five months ago. The average car default happens after two years of payments. A tide is coming.

This part of Southeast Massillon is a residential neighborhood where the sidewalks are broken and the shrubs overgrown. Larry drives past a house, loops around and slowly drives behind it, looking for an '01 Escort. No car. A full porch of neighbors take notice of the white guy driving a tow truck. "You've got eyeballs everywhere," says Larry, and moves on.

One agency owner estimates 60 percent of his repossessions come from low-income areas, 20-30 percent from middle-class areas and the rest from high-income areas. Under most circumstances, a lender pays the same for a repossessed Rolls as a Lumina, even though some recoveries are more involved than others.

Larry's boss doesn't allow him to carry a gun. And he's not tempted to carry one, anyway.

"I can," says Larry. "I usually don't. I don't have enough equity in my house to handle a lawsuit."

Ziebro echoes the same sentiment for his business, even when his agents are moving into the rougher parts of Cleveland. "A piece of collateral that has a $10,000 delinquency is not worth incurring a $500,000 lawsuit. There's always a more intelligent way to get a car."

Later, looking behind a house in a similarly distressed neighborhood, Larry will take only a flashlight with him. Some repo men prefer to carry a gun, especially the "Lone Ranger" types. Some say it's better to have one and not need it. Especially at 3 in the morning.

"You'll get killed," says the former freelancer. "Some dude catches you breaking into his shit at night, he don't know you're the repo guy."

The popularity of Operation Repo may be making such scenarios more likely — at any hour.

"When we arrive at a house, people are expecting a fight," says Bednar, Ziebro's business partner. "Assaults on our drivers have gone up."

"The show has really put our guys and the industry in harm's way," adds Ziebro. "If somebody's expecting a repo, they're waiting for a steroid-pumped person to show up at their door, and they're ready to charge them with pepper spray."

The show is attracting the wrong element to the business as well — guys who have seen it and think that bouncing people around and taking their car looks like swell fun. Says the pro-gun former freelancer, "Any dickhead with a tow truck can't be a repo guy."

Later that night in North Canton, Larry makes a second pass of the first house he visited. Now that the sun is down, the Cavalier is in the driveway. Larry lowers the wheel lift, backs up and zooms in. He raises the lift and puts on the strap.

"Now it's mine," he says, and heads for the house. Its owner answers the door and hands over the key.

When bills are mounting, a car loan is usually the easiest item to let slide. Larry understands. He says it's a no-brainer if you have to choose between the car and house.

"I feel bad that people are in the situation they are," says Larry. "I used to be in the position [thinking] 'Just pay your bills!' But if you've been in that position, you know how it is. This is a shitty job, because [a vehicle] is putting food on the family's table. It's a good job, it just sucks that I have a job where I'm taking something away from people."

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