If you don't make your car payments, someone can be hired to repossess it. They might tow it from your driveway or a parking lot. But sometimes repo men go further, breaking into people's garages or homes. Fights can break out. People get hurt, and some have even been killed, prompting some groups to call for greater regulation.
Officer James Beraldi remembers a repossession attempt near Windsor, Vt., that didn't go very well.
"It was totally out of control," he says. "Totally out of control."
Earlier this winter, a repo man jumped on an off-road, four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. He was repossessing it and decided to drive it over a railroad bridge. The bridge is long and crosses high over the deep water of the Connecticut River.
"It's very high," Beraldi says. "I don't know the exact feet, but his plan was definitely not to meet an Amtrak train coming at him."
Beraldi says the repo man was thumping over the narrow trestle when he saw the train. But he kept driving, sort of a game of chicken, trying to beat the train to the edge of the bridge.
"He was literally staring death, and he had some time to think about it right in the eye." Then, at the last second, Beraldi says, "he barely jumped off, within, like, two seconds. He would have been killed."
The ATV was crushed, but the repo man survived with minor injuries.
Repossessions Gone Wrong
Beraldi's story isn't an unusual case. Repossessions go awry all over the country.
"It is all too common," says John Van-Alst, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. He's just released a report on the repossession industry. Van-Alst says in most all states, repo men don't have to be licensed. Some are ex-convicts. Some carry weapons and sometimes, violence can break out between the property owner and the repo man.
Some repo men act like vigilantes, using tricks or intimidation, Van-Alst says. "Of course, it's going to lead to this confrontation."
Just by reviewing recent news articles, Van-Alst turned up 54 cases where fights broke out, people were injured or children were inadvertently hauled off inside repossessed cars. Firearms were often involved. He'd like to require that the courts and police get involved in repossessions, but repo men say that's unrealistic.
"There's probably three, four million pieces that are repossessed every year," repo man Joe Taylor says. "You would totally disrupt our court system in this country."
Repo Men Gone Wrong
Taylor also runs a school to train people how to repossess property safely and responsibly. He actually agrees with the NCLC that repo men should have to get background checks and be licensed and trained.
"Suppose the bank sends the repo man out to pick up your car," he says. "Suppose that repo man just happens to be a convicted felon, drug addict or just a guy with a real anger management problem. They are hiring him strictly on a contingency basis — meaning that if he doesn't repossess your car, he doesn't get paid. Taylor says that's a recipe for trouble.
"This is a serious public safety issue. I've been called as an expert witness on five different death cases."
One thing that's not helping right now, he says, is a reality-style TV show called Operation Repo.
"These guys are huge, 300-pound people," Taylor says. "You'll see them fighting the debtors, pulling guns on each other — it's all staged. It's not true at all, but you'd be amazed the number of people that watch the show, and they're ego-driven, and they call me so they can get in the repossession business."
Taylor has helped to draft legislation in a few states that would require background checks and training, but he says most legislators aren't paying much attention.
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