Thursday, June 30, 2011

Repo Man - In the Heat of the Night

Previously in my post titled “Repo man – First Blood” I shared one of my stories as a Repo Man during my first two years out of college working for a major Northwest bank. I had been doing this job for several months and had become fairly confident in role as an Outside Collector. Normally the job required me to make contact with delinquent car loan debtors during the day or early evening hours. The tougher cases, where my goal was to repossess the vehicle without customer contact, usually took place under darkness of night during the late evening to early morning hours.

This night was one such case. The debtor had been contacted previously and had not made good on their promise to bring the account current – upon being located, the collateral would be taken on sight. For most of these vehicles the bank had access to the manufacturer’s “key code”. With the code, it was a simple process to have a locksmith make a duplicate set of keys.

This night appeared like it would be just another routine repossession. I cruised the apartment complex were the delinquent debtor lived and quickly located the vehicle. Parking my bank car on the street, I quietly made my way to the collateral, slipped the key into the door, opened it and got in. Now before I would “steal” a car, I would lie down in the driver’s seat so as to not be observed then take a moment to familiarize myself with the controls so I could quickly get away without fumbling. For example, on stick shift vehicles, Reverse would be in different positions on the pattern depending on whether it was an American, Japanese or German car. Once I was ready, I would fire the ignition, throw it into reverse and back out, exit the scene then turn on the headlights when safely away. This had to be done quickly.

Confident I had familiarized myself with the controls, I started the car, sat up, put it in reverse and…. HOOOONNNKKKKK, the horn blared with an incredible noise! Unfortunately, the vehicle had been parked right outside the debtor’s bedroom window – I saw their bedroom light go on as I backed out of their parking space.

Now throwing the shift into drive I turned the vehicle out toward the street. HONK HONKKKK again the horn blared. As I glanced in the rear view mirror I saw the silhouette of the owner looking out the window witnessing their car disappearing into the night.

In preparation as I did prior to any repossession, I had previously located a pay phone booth at a nearby convenience store. I stopped to phone in the repossession report to the local police – they told me owner had already reported that their car had been “stolen”. As I got back into the collateral and gripped the wheel to deliver it to the storage facility, the horn honked again… and continued to honk randomly and unpredictably all the way to the storage lot.

After securing the car safely in storage I realized what had happened. This particular vehicle had been manufactured with a “Rim Blow” horn feature – rather than honking the horn by pressing the center of the steering column, the horn could be honked simply by tightly gripping the steering wheel rim. The idea of the designers at the time was to not have to require a driver to move their hands from the wheel rim to honk the horn. It was a convenience thing. During the tension of my executing the repossession I had been gripping the steering wheel rim tightly enough, causing the horn to honk.

This feature was later abandoned by car manufacturers after it was discovered that a vehicle parked in the hot sun would cause the vinyl in the steering wheel rim to expand, thus setting off the horn. I could imagine hundreds of unoccupied parked cars in Arizona or Texas, their horns blaring away in the heat of Summer sun.

Fortunately, in spite of the blaring horn, I successfully executed the repossession without incident. However, not all repos I did were without confrontation – that story I will save for another time.

22 comments:

Elisabeth said...

What a strangely disturbing story, Robert. It was just your job but I can't help but feel sorry for the poor fellow whose car was repossessed, though of course that's not the point of your story here.

One of my brothers once worked as a detective investigating false insurance claims. He'd trick people who allegedly could not to walk into demonstrating they could walk and such like. It made him feel quite jaded at the time.

How did you find this aspect of your job, the stealth and subterfuge etc?

DJan said...

I have long thought that job was thankless. But it seems you have stories to tell that will be very entertaining to hear. This was sure was! never knew that about steering wheels...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elisabeth Most of the time these people were deadbeats, they didn't make their payments because they thought they could get away with it. The people really in financial trouble would work with the bank to reconcile the delinquency.

I had a great time in this job. I am not a big man physically and was even shy about talking to people I didn't know on the phone. This job gave me confidence. It was great fun at times.

DJan The steering wheel was a big surprise, obviously. Yes, I have lots of interesting stories about this part of my past.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

Great story! I didn't know about those steering wheels either.

Years ago I had a contract to do public defender work. I had a client who went with her husband to test drive a high end truck at a local dealership. They had a duplicate key made while they were supposedly on their test drive.

They returned to the dealership that same night after the dealership closed, found the truck, then drove it through a chain barrier (damaging the front end of course).

The next day of course the dealership reported the truck stolen. Turns out it was also equipped with OnStar, and the company was able to activate it remotely. The OnStar staff then guided the police to within 300 feet of the vehicle in a residential subdivision. They still couldn't see it so the OnStar folks remotely honked its horn.

Of course, the truck was in my client's garage. The garage door was partially raised (about knee level) and the truck was running. When the horn honked the police saw feet running in a panic toward the house. Cops burst into the house, guns drawn, where husband and wife stood looking decidedly panicked. Husband pointed to wife and blurted out, "She gave me the truck for my birthday!"

I'll never forget sitting in court after the prosecutor handed me the discovery (police reports etc.). I started to chuckle quietly and the prosecutor - who I got along with well - sat down next to me and we read through the police reports together, stifling our laughter.

Nance said...

My uncle owned such a business in a large Southern metropolitan area and employed his two strong young sons for repo work. And, still, I never realized how dangerous the work was! Why would the bank have to steal a vehicle it owns? My ig'nunce is huge, which means I'll be standing by for the next installment!

GYPSYWOMAN said...

many moons ago and seemingly many lives ago, i, too, was a "collector" - i sat at a desk and phoned retail customers whose accounts had become delinquent - while i don't remember any deadbeats per se, i'm sure there must have been some, at least - however, the main thing i remember is that most of the customers were decent hard-working people who had simply fallen upon hard times and/or others who lived on limited incomes and found themselves in that precarious situation of having overspent - anyway, the bottom line for me was that i simply could not continue the job for long - i could feel the anguish and despair of some of the worst cases through the phone - and it impacted my own spirit in such a way that i could not go on so i quit and never looked back - however, my own story is quite different from yours - and i'm sure you've many more stories as entertaining as this one!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter This is a GREAT story. They stole a vehicle with OnStar?? That seems that should be filed under the "stupid criminal" files. Of course, claiming the "Birthday Present Defense" is a stroke of genius. Too funny!! So I'm curious, were they convicted?

Nance Your uncle's business sounds like what we would term "the pros". If a case was too dangerous or required hunting the car down routinely in the middle of the night, we would turn it over to a "Pro" (professional repossession company) rather than have bank personnel work it.

The reason why we would "steal" the car is the recover the collateral to offset the loan loss. The vehicle would either go back to the dealership who would buy back the delinquent contract OR we would sell the car to recover whatever cash we could get and apply it toward the delinquency.

Repossession was the last resort, mostly we would contact people and make payment arrangements to get the account currenty. Sometimes simply placing my business card on someone's front door was enough to bring the account current. But if people lied, didn't follow through with promises, the car was history.

GypsyWoman Welcome. I use the term "deadbeats" to refer to people who would not take responsibility for their debts. As you say, most people would get in over their heads; often I thought it was the fault of car salesmen/dealers who would sell a car to someone who clearly could not afford it. However, I can't tell you how OFTEN I would repo a car and find all the unopened late notices in the glove box as I was clearing out the personal property from the vehicle.

I did "inside collecting" as well, but I didn't like do that on the phone at all. I much preferred being in the field.

Paul said...

Robert you should try being a process server. Now that is fun...:-)

TechnoBabe said...

That is a tough job. How do you go back for the bank car? I had never heard of the honking steering wheel. I sounds like being a bounty hunter for vehicles. Tell some more stories like this.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul I have heard similar stories by process servers; like chasing the people down and throwing the papers at them. Similar hilarity.

TechnoBabe To recover the bank car we had several strategies; take a cab from the impound lot back when working alone or often we would team up with another outside collector and work in pairs on both our case loads. One drives the repo and one drives the bank car. We also used to wait until morning and get a ride from one of the other outside collectors. Yes, I do have more stories.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

Robert - yes. The theft of the vehicle was only one case. There were several cases including charges of theft (puppies, boxes of checks stolen from mailboxes, you name it), forgery, and possession/distribution of methamphetamine. Those types of charges often go together. State's evidence was solid. We negotiated a plea bargain and my client did much better than she would have had she gone to trial. Husband was indicted federally.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter Excellent, it appears that justice was served.

Antares Cryptos said...

One of life's funny moments. Trying to picture you in stealth mode, driving with a honking car.

Or Karma;)

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

The lesson here is: Relax when you're stealing cars. lol
Can't wait for the next chapter!

MartyrMom said...

I love that story! I think "the criminal" would do well in that sort of position.
Stealing legally has to be the BOMB!!!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos It was certainly anything but stealth!!

Dawn I could anything but relax; the adrenaline caused my right foot to shake every time I repoed a vehicle.

MartyrMom It certainly was a "thrill" job at times, mostly it was tedious. The one thing is that I started in a career where I didn't have a supervisor or boss over me watching everything I did and how I did it. I was given my cases and it was my decision how to work them and manage my time.

billy pilgrim said...

definitely a job for the young and adventurous.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Oh definitely a young man's job.

secret agent woman said...

I don't know why, but that story made me a little sad.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I can tell you that I only had one customer I felt badly about who was in a bad financial situation that was not his fault. For the most part I was dealing with people whose reaction to their debt was to ignore or deny the issue and just not deal with it. The bank was not in the business of awarding free cars to people who were not responsible for their actions. At the time I felt I was righting a wrong and I didn't feel badly about it at all.

secret agent woman said...

Of course the banks can't give their money away. But since I work on the other side of it, I know that sometimes (not always) ignoring debt comes from a place of hopelessness and inadeqaute life skills.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Well quite true. And I didn't become exposed to inadequate life skills until I made a monumental career shift from banking and began working in Human Services. You may recall that entry about my career, political and perspective change.