A truck locked behind gates on private property is usually off limits to a repo man – but only until he returns with a court order.
Professional recovery agent Mark Lacek doesn’t really want to take your truck. In fact, Lacek, a former trucker, is well aware he’s driving off with your livelihood. But if you miss a few truck payments and then don’t return phone calls from your lender, you leave the lender no choice but to hire someone like Lacek to bring back the truck.
What many owner-operators don’t realize, though, is that they still have lots of wiggle room after missing some payments and certain rights throughout the repossession process. Many also don’t realize that no matter how hard they try to hide themselves or the trucks, they are fighting a losing battle over who will end up with the truck.
Virtually every owner-operator originally expects to meet his payments, but illness, expensive fuel, a bad broker or poor business decisions disrupt those plans, says Phil Jenkins, a trucking industry financial consultant. Consequently, with high fuel prices and freight slowdowns, there have been more than 220,000 truck repossessions in the past three years, estimates Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
What complicates the problem for many financially distressed owner-operators is that thay bury their heads in the sand when the lender tries to find out what can be done about resolving late payment problems. Even by the time the lender turns your account over to a repossession company – usually 90 days after the first missed payment – you still have options.
“Lenders want to work with you up until the repo man drives off with your truck,” says Walter Fennington, a portfolio manager for a major commercial lender whose name he could not divulge, in Baltimore. “It’s still your call. I get paid to resolve the issue even if I don’t repo the truck. Call me and I’ll see if there’s anything I can do to help resolve the problem.”
If you choose to stay out of touch and change addresses or live out of the truck, repo companies hire information specialists known as skip tracers to track you down. They use databases, credit records, police reports, licensing information, carrier personnel and other resources. If you use a credit card, file a tax return, turn on your utilities, get a speeding ticket or do anything else that causes your name to surface, they’ll find you.
Repo agents in most states have a lot of leeway and full police protection when taking your truck back. You have rights, too, though they vary by state. In Florida, for example, where Lacek operates MDL Asset Recovery in Orlando, the repo company must notify you that they are coming to take your truck. In many states, no notification is required.
The law doesn’t allow your creditor to commit a “breach of peace” in connection with repossession. In some states, removing a vehicle from an enclosed space, such as a garage or fenced yard, may constitute a breach of peace. Most repossessions occur at night or when the truck is parked in order to avoid breaching the peace. You have the right to a peaceable repossession, that is, no use of weapons or other force is allowed. You have the right to recover your personal possessions in the truck.
Kenny Scott, owner of repossession company Night Moves, in New York City, says it’s not that hard to track down a trucker, says Scott, who usually has good luck with the dispatcher. “You just try to find someone willing to rat him out,” Scott says. “If he’s already a deadbeat, chances are he owes other people money, too. Once you get his route, you get his truck.”
Breaking into the truck comes next. Craig Glass of MDL says he can get into any truck and start it in a flash. His tools include rings of keys, lock picks, lock lifters, slim-jims and glass wedges. He also knows the habits and hangouts of Florida truckers. “Finding a hidden truck isn’t as hard as it seems,” says Glass.
Repo companies often hire a full-time trucker for several hundred dollars to drive the repossessed truck.
In cases where the debtor places the truck in a situation where it cannot be recovered peacefully, Fennington says, he returns with a court order called a writ of repliven and the local sheriff. “The debtor is going to lose the game. The sad thing is that I don’t want the truck.”
When an owner-operator returns a truck or has it repossessed, the finance company has the option to file the repo on the trucker’s credit report. “The amazing thing – from our experience – is that not a lot of lenders file against their credit,” says Todd Amen, a principal with American Truck Business Services. “They may collect against them, but they don’t file. Still, if a company files, that repossession can stay on your credit report for years and may prevent you from buying another truck.”
One option after a repo is to become a company driver. At some carriers, as a company driver you can still qualify for a lease-purchase plan and work toward becoming an owner-operator again.
Better yet, stay in touch with the lender as soon as problems arise. If you can work through a difficult financial period, your credit rating might suffer a bit, but your operation could continue uninterrupted.
It’s common to find a potentially mean dog in the cab of a truck, but that’s easily solved with a bag of hamburgers, Lacek says.
IRATE DEBTORS, ANIMAL SURPRISES ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Is repossession just another nasty job that someone’s got to do? Often yes, but it’s also an unusual field that generates its own colorful tales.
One time Mark Lacek and Craig Glass, recovery agents for Orlando based MDL Assets, drove their Freightliner to a vacant lot to retrieve a trailer. The first sign that this was not a routine job came when a stench hit them even before they got out of the truck. Lacek pulled open the back of the trailer and was greeted with a pair of wide-open, unblinking eyes. Dead cows and cow parts filled the trailer. They slammed the door shut.
Their next stop was the debtor’s residence. “We didn’t want to do it, but we needed to find out where to take the meat. It’s not like we could turn the trailer over to the bank with 40,000 pounds of cow meat in it. The debtor came to the door in a full-length white apron splashed from top to bottom in blood and gore. He was holding a butcher knife in both hands and inquired, ‘May I help you?’
“We asked him real nicely if we could unload the meat for him. He declined, telling us real nicely that he was done with the dead cow business.”
After a lot of dead-ends, they finally found an alligator farm that agreed to take the meat.
“Unloading 40,000 pounds of dead cow meat at an alligator farm is not exactly what you have in mind when you go into this business,” Lacek says. “But it’s a business where there’s always demand for our services.”
Lacek takes pride in providing those services and would like to see the industry clean up its renegade image. He uses the term recovery agent instead of repo man and publishes Professional Repossessor, a publication devoted to upgrading the professionalism of the recovery agent.
Kenny Scott, owner of New York City repossession company Night Moves, says calling a repo man a recovery agent is like putting perfume on a skunk. “I’ve been shot at, I’ve had guns pulled on me and I’ve been in tight situations. It’s a tough business,” Scott says.
“I hate to take someone’s truck, but it’s my job,” he says. “On the other hand, someone’s toy convertible – that’s a real pleasure,” he says. His favorite repo was a new Lexus that the debtor paid for with a bad check. After the dealer called him, Scott followed the owner from the dealer to a car wash. The owner proudly watched his Lexus being washed, polished and shined. Then, right in front of his eyes, Scott’s partner climbed in the car and drove it back to the dealer.
Like Scott, some repo agents try to sympathize with owner-operators who are losing their livelihoods. Lacek has bought a bus ticket for a stranded trucker before and has put his debtors up in hotels.
“Once I was driving down the road in a repossessed truck when a small, furry animal brushed past my leg. To my great horror, it was a ferret, and soon the other pet, a cat, joined in the fun,” Lacek says. He pulled over and rented a hotel room for the cat and ferret, called the debtor and told him where the pets were. “It was obviously this guy’s pet, and I wasn’t going to take his pets from him,” Lacek says.
What’s more common is finding a potentially mean dog in the cab of a truck, but that’s easily solved with a bag of hamburgers, Lacek says. “Dogs aren’t as much of a problem as a hostile trucker.”
“I had a woman wearing cowboy boots jump in the cab and kick the heck out of me, ” Glass recalls. When confronted with violent resistance, a truly professional agent will walk away from the job. “No piece of equipment is worth losing your life over,” Lacek says.
A recovery agent needs to use his best people skills with an upset owner, Lacek says: “I’d rather hire a marriage therapist than some thug to do my repos.”
MISSED A PAYMENT?
If you’re having trouble keeping up with truck payments, it could be the beginning of the end for ownership of your current truck. Or the beginning of a tough period of working through a heavy debt load. Either way, there are things you should and should not do that can save you thousands of dollars and keep your credit rating as shiny as possible for that day when you rebound.
CALL YOUR LENDER. Even one missed payment technically puts you at risk for repossession. “Call the lender,” says Kevin Rutherford, whose Whiteline Business Services provides financial counseling and tax services for owner-operators. “Keep communicating. Most truckers don’t realize that the last thing the bank wants is another 18-wheel truck. They want you to succeed, and they are very motivated to work with you.”
DO NOT STRIP THE TRUCK. Many owner-operators, angry over their circumstances and desperate for cash, decide to strip the truck of tires, chrome and other parts to sell them. Big mistake. “The better condition the truck, the more it will get at a repossession sale, the less you will owe in the end,” says Walter Fennington, who handles repos for a lender. “And make no mistake, you will eventually have to pay for the truck.”
MAINTAINING THE TRUCK. Again, the more the truck is worth at the time of repossession, the less you will owe.
DO NOT HIDE THE TRUCK. You are responsible for repossession fees. Therefore, a voluntary surrender is less expensive than expenses incurred by having to track down the truck’s location and go to extra lengths to gain its possession.
TAKE PHOTOS OF THE TRUCK. Proof of the truck’s condition could help later if you are assessed for damages you were not responsible for.