Losing it

| August 08, 2008

Most lenders want to help you figure out a way to resolve your payment issues and will work with you if you stay in touch. Kevin Rutherford, host of ATBS Trucking Business and Beyond on XM radio says not doing so is about the worst course of action if you’re late on a payment. “Call him every week and tell him what’s going on,” Rutherford says. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of giving them your plan and keeping them in the loop that makes the difference.” Rutherford has seen lenders work with his clients until things turned around. “But if you aren’t in touch, you don’t have a chance,” he says. “The last thing they want is your truck. They are motivated to work with you to make your payments.”

If you don’t return calls or they get late payment notices returned to sender, address unknown, they’ll turn the problem over to someone like Crocker who will eventually find you.

Large companies like Advanced Recovery Florida and Nassau Asset Management use information specialists called “skip tracers.” They can use credit records, GPS data, police reports or comprehensive information supplied by your carrier to track you down. Anytime you use a credit card for food or fuel, get a parking ticket or show up on a database, you mark your trail. Blackburn says he’s going to find you one way or another. “I’m going to get your truck from your yard, your truckstop or your ass,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me how I find it, but I will find it.”

Peaceful recovery
Once you’ve exhausted all your financial resources and can’t make your payments, you still have rights up until the last minute of the repossession. Your rights vary from state to state, but the law doesn’t allow a repo man to “breach the peace” when taking back your truck. In some states that means they can’t remove your vehicle from an enclosed space like a locked yard or garage, and they can’t use weapons or any force. You also have the right to remove or recover all your personal possessions from the truck.

Contrary to the macho image portrayed in the iconic 1984 flick Repo Man and the sensationalist television show Steal’n for a Living, most professional recovery agents find a calm, respectful approach is the best way to handle a repossession. Jennifer Maiers, one of the few repo women in the business, says she’s found most men have a hard time saying no to her. Maiers’ husband, a repo man for 20 years in Dover, Ohio, was stunned when Jennifer calmly walked up to a man who was losing five trucks he stopped paying for. They spotted the trucks at the maintenance shop, checked the VIN number and waited until the owner came in. “I approached him and explained why I was there and how he needed to do the right thing by handing me the keys to the trucks. The bank wanted them back, and that was all there was to it,” Maiers says. “He handed me five sets of keys, and I removed them from the lot, one by one. My husband couldn’t believe how easy it went.”

While only two states, Florida and California, license repo men, most successful recovery agents take a reasonable and professional approach to returning collateral to the banks that own them. Most say it’s just a job, and they feel the pinch of diesel prices, too, since many operate tow trucks.

“I’m a reasonable guy and not without a sense of empathy for the guy losing his truck,” Blackburn says. “It’s not like when you have to take a Porsche or a boat from someone. You know when you take a truck you’re taking someone’s livelihood. I try to let him know right up front that it’s not personal – it’s just a job. I get most equipment back without a fuss.”

Crocker agrees, and in all his years of recovering big rigs, he says it’s the exception rather than the rule when he has to take a truck at night or from a truckstop. Like today’s professional drivers who resent the old pop-culture image of the trucker as a rebellious sort, most professional recovery agents feel the popular image of the renegade repo man hurts the industry and puts a lot of bad information out there that ultimately hurts the debtor.

“We know what it’s like to be out there, making a living,” says Blackburn. Numerous times he’s called the lender to authorize payment for a bus ticket or overnight lodging for an owner-operator who just lost his truck. “I’ve brought pets to local vets, dropped drivers off at the airport or gave them a lift to a local hotel. I’m not going to leave someone high and dry. It’s the kind of business where you show respect to the people you are dealing with. Hard times can happen to anyone, and I’m not judging them.”

Blackburn says it’s common to arrange the pickup a few streets over from the debtor’s home. “I don’t want to embarrass anyone in front of their family or neighbors,” he says. “If you are reasonable and civil to me, I’ll work with you.”

The good guy gets tough, though, when truckers run and hide or trash the truck in anger or just ignorance.

“If you strip the truck, trash the interior or in any way damage the unit, you are the one who will eventually have to pay for the damage,” Rutherford says. “Even if you declare bankruptcy, you are responsible for the tax on the deficiency that’s forgiven in the bankruptcy. That can come back to bite you later.”

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