Repossessing vehicles may be getting riskier

Agents stay busy in sour economy
Mickey Koelling says car repossession agents must follow the rules, but they often meet with threats or actual violence. He says he was hit in the head with a chain during one encounter.



Recovery agent Ben Newsome said his job has become more dangerous since Operation Repo hit truTV.

"It's awful," he said of the show. "It's going to get somebody killed. It didn't get me killed, but it got me 15 stitches in the head."

The show follows a group of repo men who kick, push, scream, fight and pepper-spray people when retrieving their vehicles.

The show has taught car owners to expect violence.

At the request of the lien holder, Mickey Koelling, of Professional Auto Recovery in Augusta, was sent to Columbia to discuss payment arrangements with a debtor. But she refused to open the door for fear she would be thrown to the ground and pepper-sprayed.

On another job, a group of young men told Koelling they had seen the show and were prepared to fight for their vehicle.

But the truth is, repossession isn't like that. Recovery agents, just like everyone else, must obey laws.

Koelling said people resist all the time but agents don't respond with force.

For example, he said, several repo companies have attempted to repossess a North Carolina man's Mercedes. But when he's sleeping in it with a shotgun, there isn't much anyone can do.

Newsome, of American Recovery, said he has seen snakes and dogs left in cars as deterrents.

That's considered mild.

Every repo man has tales about really dangerous jobs.

Scouting for a car on Bolt Avenue in June, Newsome's personal vehicle was shot 17 times -- shattering back and front windows, flattening three tires and damaging his tool box.

The recovery agent said investigators believe the shooting occurred because he was in someone else's territory.

"Technically I could have repoed the car while I was there. I had the key, but I probably would have been dead," Newsome said.

As for the 15 stitches, they were required after he was struck on the head with a bottle.

Koelling, who has repossessed vehicles in several states, said he got his first piercing when he was hit with a 2-by-4 and a 16-penny nail went through his tongue.

Another time, he was hit in the head with a chain.

In August, a woman backed into him while attempting to make a getaway.

Koelling said he wasn't injured, so he didn't press charges. Everybody has desperate times, he said.

Both Koelling and Newsome said being held at gunpoint isn't uncommon. That's why vehicles are often repossessed at night, they explained.

"It usually takes 30 seconds to a minute-and-a-half to get (the vehicle) out of the yard," Koelling said. "By the time they get out of bed and put their clothes on, we're gone."

Although it can be dangerous, Newsome said, he continues because not every repossession is a life-or-death situation.

Many times the debtors are expecting a repossession and willingly hand over the keys, or have the vehicle in the driveway with the keys inside and license plate removed.

Lenders typically wait 90 days before calling for repossession.

With the recession, Koelling said, he's not only seeing more clients but a different kind of client.

To some, he's a familiar face, having repossessed several cars from them. Now he's meeting people who usually aren't late on their payments.

The good thing for recovery agents is that repossession is a recession-proof industry. The bad thing is the bad-guy image.

"It isn't my fault," Newsome said. "People are down on their luck, and there's a trail that gets to me. They take it out on me, but it isn't my fault."

The laws of repossession

WHERE: Recovery agents can remove a vehicle from private property as long as they don't commit breaking and entering or breach the peace.

WHEN: A request for foreclosure is usually submitted internally after two months of delinquent payments. By month three, a repossession company is usually searching for the vehicle.

NOTIFICATION: Lenders are not required to notify the debtor that the vehicle is to be repossessed.

DEFICIENCY: Lenders can seek deficiency payments if the sale of the vehicle does not cover the debt. Example: If a car with a balance of $15,000 is sold for $10,000 after being repossessed, the lender can seek $5,000 from the debtor.

POSSIBLE REPOSSESSION LOOMING: If you're delinquent, avoid complications by removing items in the vehicle. Debtors should contact the lender and explain the situation as soon as nonpayment begins. Banks will sometimes defer payments or work out a payment schedule.

Source: Mark A. Cleary, of Dunstan, Cleary and West LLP in Augusta