Losing it

A trucker faces repossession in action. Left to right: Jon Kizziah, Terry Ransey (in the truck), Dwayne Kizziah, a cat named Dog and Jerry White. Good repo agents keep the situation from getting out of control by acting professionally when confronted by a truck owner.

Professional recovery agent Jamie Blackburn was hunting a year-old yellow Freightliner when he spotted it stashed in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

He approached the truck, checked that the VIN number matched the paperwork from the lender and knocked at the door. When nobody answered, it took him less than 20 seconds to pick the lock, start it up and drive away. But suddenly, he heard a ruckus in the sleeper.

“Something was back there, but I didn’t know what it was,” says the owner of Advanced Recovery Florida, a recovery and repossession company located in Bunnell, Fla. The rustling got louder, and about 2 miles down the road, Blackburn spotted the metal cage stashed in the lower bunk, where an agitated 18-ft. boa constrictor resided. “I pulled over to the side of the road and called the owner-operator, told him to come pick up the rest of his property,” Blackburn says. “And he did.”

In his 18 years a repo man, Blackburn has picked countless trucks, and he’s encountered all kinds of things left behind – blow-up dolls, ferrets, dogs, cats and even a gun or two. “The snake wasn’t the strangest thing,” he says, “but it did cause a memorable adrenaline rush.” Most repos aren’t nearly as exciting.

Repos rising
The repo business is booming, and as fuel prices continue shooting up, things are only getting more intense. Blackburn says he’s sympathetic toward owner-operators who’ve hit hard times, but like all of us, he has a job to do. “These days,” he says, “I’m more likely to be greeted with a sigh of relief and handed a set of keys.”

Edward Castagna, president of Nassau Asset Management, says repossessions and liquidations of tractor-trailers in the United States increased 110 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. There’s no end to the spike in sight, according to his company’s NasTrac Quarterly Index. The freight decline led by the housing crisis and the dramatic rise in fuel prices are major factors in the truck repossessions.

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“Most of the repossessed trucks are from owner-operators who are getting hammered by fuel prices, have maxed out their credit and aren’t getting the loads they need to stay afloat,” Castagna says.

Not only are there more trucks to repo for the lenders, they are taking less time to recover. “The writing is on the wall,” Castagna says. “If they miss a payment, there’s less work out there to keep them on the road, which means less chance of digging out of their hole. It used to take weeks to track down a big rig, and now it’s taking days or sometimes even hours.”

The financial woes of independent operators are reverberating through the industry, and repo companies are picking up small fleets as well as single units. Donald Broughton, Transportation Equities Analyst for Avondale Partners, says trucking company failures have spiked to the highest levels seen since the record highs in 2000 and 2001, and more than 42,000 units of the nation’s over-the-road truck capacity were idle in the first quarter of 2008. Those desperate enough to carry freight without collecting fuel surcharges are in dire circumstances, and smaller firms have less clout or reserves to weather the storm.

For those who find themselves in financial straits bad enough to miss a payment, the harsh reality is that the lender may have no choice but to take back the truck. Although facing repossession may seem like the end of the world, what you may not realize is there are plenty of choices throughout the process.

Communication is key
Private investigator Ray Crocker, president of American Locators Recovery in Nashville, Tenn., says he sees many independents who know the gig is up but who just bury their heads in the sand. “The lender doesn’t want your truck back, but if you don’t communicate with them, they don’t have any choice but to hire someone to get it back for them.”

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.”

The same thing happens if you try to hide the truck or dodge the repo man. “The repo man charges the lender for the expenses incurred in the repo,” Rutherford says. “If it takes him a long time to find you, you’re just running up your own tab.”

In rare cases, if the debtor puts the recovery agent in a situation where he can’t recover the truck peacefully, or if he’s threatened with violence, he can return with the sheriff and a court order called a writ of repliven. “I’m not going to risk my life over a truck, and I’ll get the sheriff if I have to,” says Dwayne Kizziah, owner of Dwayne’s Towing and Recovery in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “Usually, I don’t have any problems picking up anything I need to get. But I’ll bring back the law if that’s the only way it’s going to go down. It usually doesn’t come to that, though. Most people respect the fact that it’s not their possession if they haven’t paid for it.”

Overcoming the repo
Kizziah has seen a big increase in repos as the economy worsens, but like other recovery agents report, there’s more of a sense of inevitability by the time he gets to them. “Mostly, there’s a sense of shame and embarrassment involved, and I try to respect that,” he says.

The shame in losing a truck is something that one owner-operator, whom we’ll call Max, says he’s knows quite well. Max was running a fairly successful operation when he suffered a serious injury in a fall and wasn’t able to work for several months. Both of his trucks were repossessed, and he was devastated by the loss. “I can’t tell you how deeply depressed I was,” he says. “My credit was ruined, and I couldn’t even get a car loan. It truly seemed like I was at the end of the road.”

Instead of giving up, Max went to work as a company driver and slowly paid back what he owed. His equipment was sold at an auction, and he was responsible for the deficiency. The good news was that he turned over well-maintained trucks in top condition. Plus, he only owed a small percentage of the loan when he lost the trucks. “Slowly, I came back,” he says. His lender continued working with him, and their relationship was a good one. Eventually, he was able to rehabilitate his credit rating and today owns his own truck again.

Rutherford says Max’s story is not an uncommon one. “Don’t give up. If you fall on hard times, there are always options,” he says. “Get financial advice sooner rather than later. If it comes down to the worst-case scenario, turn over the truck peacefully and hire on with a company. Set up a payment plan with your lender and pay down your debt.” Rutherford says he works with truckers to reduce their expenses and live frugally while getting back on their feet. “It can be done, and you come out a stronger, better business person afterward.”

Tools of the Trade
Most repo men can pick the lock of any truck in less than 20 seconds using a standard lock pick. For newer trucks, they’ll use a locksmith to make a key, and some carry a portable key-making machine in their truck.

“In many cases, the trucker leaves the key in the truck or hidden outside the truck,” says recovery agent Jamie Blackburn.

Big easy or big blue – Used to snake through a crack in the window and flip the lock to the door.

Slim Jim and lock pick – Used to tumble the lock and open the door.

Wedge – Opens a crack in the window without hurting the glass.

Taser and Mace – Used to defend against dogs and other animals in the cab.

How to Cut Your Losses

Reach out and touch someone.
If you miss even one payment, your lender can repossess your truck. Check your contract – it’s in there. Call your lender sooner rather than later. When you talk to them, explain your situation. If there’s a chance things will improve, tell them and ask them what you can do to work out a payment plan.

Don’t run.
The worst thing you can do is to run. There was a time when truckers could play an extended game of cat and mouse with the repo man. Those days are gone. Technology makes it impossible to hide, and the longer it takes them to find you, the deeper the hole you dig for yourself.

Don’t fear the repo.
The repo man is not going to risk assault charges, and neither should you. Be civil to him – he’s just doing his job. Believe it or not, he probably feels badly for you.

Don’t strip the truck.
Stories abound about desperate owner-operators facing repossession who decide to remove chrome, tires and any other parts of the truck they think they can sell for quick cash. Don’t do it. Anything you remove will be added to your delinquency.

Remove your stuff.
Clean out your personal items and ask your lender’s permission to remove any electronic devices you installed that will leave holes.

Take some shots.
Photograph the interior and exterior after removing personal possessions. This could come in handy if there are future claims of damage against you.