Skip to comments.Boom Times for Repo Guys
Posted on 04/18/2003 5:23:02 PM PDT by arete
It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your car is? Max Pineiro knows where somebody's is, and he is about to steal it. Driving his Ford F-150 truck around a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Rahway, N.J., on a Monday night, he and his partner, Sergio Costa, don't take long to find what they want, a red Honda Accord. Unlocking the car will be easy they even have a key but if there's an alarm, they are worried about disabling it before being caught.
Mr. Pineiro takes a deep breath. "O.K., I'm going in," he says to Mr. Costa. He walks briskly from his truck to the Accord and furtively unlocks it. The alarm shrieks, but a flick of his hand under the dash silences the electronic scream. Within 20 seconds, he has the engine engaged and is speeding down the street, a rosary still dangling from the rearview mirror. Mr. Costa speeds away in the truck.
Amazingly, this theft is 100 percent legal. Max Pineiro is a repo man.
He and the employees of his company, Elite Collateral Recovery and Investigations in Elizabeth, N.J., are just a handful of the thousands of repossessors in the United States. And business has never been better. All the cash floating around during the boom of the 1990's inspired some serious credit stretching, and now those bills can't be paid. "I've taken cars from celebs, pro ballplayers, you name it," Mr. Pineiro said. "Debt doesn't discriminate."
On that Monday alone, Mr. Pineiro got 51 new orders for cars, and big days like this aren't unusual. According to the repo trade association Time Finance Adjusters, banks took back some 2.25 million autos last year. "Repo companies are making money a lot of money right now," said Harvey C. Altes, chief executive of Time Finance.
Repo guys take everything from A.T.M.'s to office furniture to jet skis, but cars are their meat and potatoes. The autos may be leases or rentals that were never returned, but they are usually purchases with a stack of unpaid bills behind them. Banks focus on the business of lending; when they need to get their property back, they contract out.
And banks are doing a lot of contracting these days. At Ford Credit, the financing arm of Ford Motor, the number of loans that require repossession has jumped 30 percent in the last three years, to almost 200,000 cars last year. And at the auto lender AmeriCredit, that number has jumped from 3.6 percent of total loans in 2000, to 5.8 percent in 2002 and an expected 7.9 percent the first half of 2003.
TO stem these losses, lenders say they are increasing their credit requirements. Yet at the same time, they're also encouraging people to borrow by offering zero percent down or extending loans to 75 months from 60 months. Banks say that most of their clients have good credit histories; still, "you'll always have people whose circumstances change," said Nicholas G. Stanutz, an executive vice president at the Huntington Bank in Columbus, Ohio, and chairman of the auto finance committee of the Consumer Bankers Association. "The nature of the business is that you'll have repossessions."
In other words, creditors need the repo man. "Without repo guys, we'd lose millions of dollars every year," said Dan Jarvis, a spokesman for Ford Credit.
Reality TV shows portray repo men (and they are mostly men) as living-on-the-edge tough guys who carry guns and never take no for an answer. This cowboy image isn't fictitious; the industry is almost completely unregulated (Florida and California are among the few states to require licenses), so anyone with a tow truck and a coat hanger can get into the business. And each nabbed car (or pop, in repo lingo) brings at least $300 not bad for a few minutes' work.
But most of these legal burglars aren't wild enough for prime time. Sure, they're tough: they're operating on adrenaline, working all night and living on caffeine, and they know how to disable the latest alarms and laugh at theft-prevention devices. But the most successful are executives first. To protect the bank's investment and themselves, they're fully insured and bonded. They test their employees for drug use. They belong to trade associations and yawn attend conventions. They don't even carry guns.
Instead, they arm themselves with the latest technology, like computers that can cut car keys and trucks that are outfitted with voice-activated global positioning systems to pinpoint addresses. Then there is the heavy equipment. That Ford F-150 that Mr. Pineiro uses may look like an ordinary pickup, but towing gear is hidden underneath; when it's activated, so is a tiny camera that transmits a black-and-white picture to a screen inside the cab to guide the equipment around the wheels. Sometimes Mr. Pineiro doesn't even have to leave the safety of his truck.
That's fine with him, since only about 15 percent of debtors willingly give up their wheels. Though confrontations don't happen often (less than 10 percent of the time), they do happen, and the repo guys have to be vigilant. "People usually know we're coming," Mr. Pineiro said, "so surprise is everything." If the debtor catches him and tells him to get lost, the law says he has to leave unless he's a good sweet talker.
"You go out there trying to be like John Wayne, and you won't have much luck," said Dan Caldwell, a repo guy in Flint, Mich. "But 9 out of 10 times I can talk someone into letting me take the car."
Of course, sweet talking won't help much if the debtor is intent on violence. Money is probably already a problem of course, taking away the person's ability to get to his job is likely to make it worse and people with problems sometimes overreact. Ken Jongewaard, a repo man in Chicago for the last 13 years, has been shot at three times. "Not too bad," he said, even though the last time a bullet hit him in the hand.
When debtors aren't violent, they can be sneaky. They may paint the car, swap wheels with a friend, drive to Mexico or use a business card to cover the vehicle identification number the only way to identify a car accurately. So repo men double as detectives, and some are licensed private investigators. That Monday night, Mr. Pineiro had two pops, but four other cars were missing in action. Repo guys can spend hours or days scouring neighborhoods for cars, checking back and back and back. "Eventually, people slip up," Mr. Pineiro said.
For Roy N., a repo man in Little Falls, Minn., who insisted that his surname not be used because others in his business might object to his speaking with a writer, it took two months before one debtor slipped up. Painstaking investigative work had gained him only a cellphone number and when he called, the debtor taunted him, saying he would never get the car. Roy gave it right back. "I told him, `The day's coming when I'm going to find you,' " he said.
Finally, tipped off to the debtor's driving route one night, he staked out the road for 15 hours. It paid off. He followed the debtor to his girlfriend's house and grabbed the car while he was inside.
Besides fancy computer detective software, repo guys also use a time-tested battery of tricks. Want to find out if the debtor's at home probably with the car? Call and pretend to have a delivery. Want to disguise the repo truck? Slap a sign on the side with the name of a construction company. Sometimes the tricks go too far. To get one debtor to call back (and therefore verify his number and address), a Texas repo firm left a fake but terrifying message in September 2001. It said that someone the debtor had slept with had tested positive for H.I.V. Because the man had coincidentally just had an AIDS test, the trick worked. When he realized it was a ruse, he sued for damages on grounds of emotional abuse and unfair business practice. The case is pending.
No matter the method, once repossessors find and nab a car, they inform the police that it has been repossessed, and the vehicle goes to a storage lot. Mr. Pineiro's lot is filled with everything from Camrys to Cherokees to Taurus wagons. Vehicles like Ferraris and Lexuses are garaged even in the repo world they get special treatment. Personal property is removed and returned, but if the debt isn't paid after 10 or 15 days, the car goes to a dealer auction so the bank can recover some of its money.
It's not cheap to repossess a car: with fees and auction costs added in, banks stand to lose $6,000 to $9,000 a car, according to the Consumer Bankers Association. It's no wonder repossession is the bank's last resort. But when creditors simply can't work it out with a debtor, they turn to a firm like Mr. Pineiro's. He'll don his black clothing and gear up for another pop.
"It's never the same day twice," he said, entering a new location into the G.P.S. "When there's no more adrenaline rush in this business, you're done."
I talked to a local "recovery specialist" who told be that his business is absolutely booming and sees it getting better as the auto makers try to push more inventory off their lots. He said that it is not unusal to repo a car from a guy and then have to go back again 6 months later and get another from the same person.
Comments and opinions welcome.
The economy is getting stronger every day.
After chasing the guy away with a shotgun four times, and half a dozen calls to the police and threatening a restraining order the idiot finally stopped trying to swipe his truck.
You would think after the keys didn't work and the names didn't match the redo-dude might have done a little homework rather than wasting three months trying to repo the wrong truck.
I don't think this occupation attracts the best and the brightest
Thats because this theft isnt theft in most states. Its recovering someone elses property that is illegally being used.
Anyway, you have to be careful if you do this type of job in Texas. It used to be that you could use lethal force to protect yourself or your property especially at night. The general rule of thumb is that if you can take the car and remove it from the premises, it constitutes a repo. If you get killed in the process, the guy prevented the theft of property that he was legally responsible for making payments on. At least thats the way it used to be.
Thats why the towing company I worked for as a kid (owned by an ex-cop) used a paid off duty (but uniformed) officer to come along to notify the owner that it was a legitimate repo. On top of that, wed try to do it in the daytime and preferably get it from the parking lot of the guys job if he had one.
As long as you're good with a coat hanger.
Is that the Chinese economy?
What the h### kind of law is that? (and this is a J.D. asking here) If the financing contract says that the lender has the legal right the repossess the vehicle if the payments aren't up to date, then the lender's agent has the legal right to repossess it, and the borrower has no legal right to interfere. Maybe the Socialist State of New York has passed some weird law specific to car-repos, but this sounds mighty odd. The repo guys can legally snatch the car, except if the borrower happens to see him starting to do it and asks him to stop, and then it would be illegal???
Chalk it up to a misspent childhood, as a paratrooper in the us army.
I still have a slim-jim in my truck.
Still true today. Here is the relevant law. Penal Code 9.42.
§ 9.42. Deadly Force to Protect Property
A person is justified in using deadly force against another to protect land or tangible, movable property:
(1) if he would be justified in using force against the other under Section 9.41; and
(2) when and to the degree he reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary:
(A) to prevent the other's imminent commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime; or
(B) to prevent the other who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property; and
(3) he reasonably believes that:
(A) the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means; or
(B) the use of force other than deadly force to protect or recover the land or property would expose the actor or another to a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Folks, this only applies to TEXAS. I think Texas is unique in this law. If you are on my property at night and I shoot you in the back with my property in your hands while you are running away, I cannot be prosecuted. We take our neighbor's fences mighty seriously down here. Don't try this in your state.
Don't tell me the NYT flubbed an apostrophe... that would just break my heart.
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