Tuesday, March 29, 2005

REPO WOMAN

Someone was asking me today about a lady I wrote about six years ago -- Kate the Repo Woman.

I haven't seen her in years, and I forgot her last name. In the story we agreed to use only her first name.

Last time I saw her was a few months after the article was published. I was on my way up to Taos and had stopped at a conenience store in Espanola for a soft drink. Kate talked me into driving her down to a place in San Juan Pueblo, where she had a vehicle to repossess. I dropped her off, she made the pop.

If anyone knows where she is, drop me an e-mail.

Here's the story I did:


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 18, 1999

Repo Woman needed a flashlight, so her driver pulled over and stopped his car at the side of the dark, narrow mean-dog street somewhere north of Espanola.

She was there to hunt for and hopefully "pop" a Pontiac Grand Am. In her hand was the contract the errant Grand Am owner had signed with the title company the year before. The interest rate was ridiculous, but the amount owed was only about $400. The owner had not made a payment in more than a year, had not made arrangements with the title company.

And the owner had signed the contract, which gave the company the right to send someone like Repo Woman whose real name is Kate, a 43-year-old Santa Fe resident who asked that her last name not be used to take back the Grand Am without notice.

She had the contract, and she had the keys, which the title company had retained in case the contract ended like this.

Earlier that day, Kate had done some detective work, calling someone listed as a reference on the contract. She used one of her favorite ruses, claiming to be someone from a package delivery service wondering where the a package could be delivered for the car owner. Using this subterfuge she learned that the car owner had moved. She got directions though rather vague directions to the new residence.

But in this semi-rural area in the dark of night, those directions had stopped being useful. The driver got out of his car to look for his flashlight in his trunk. As soon as he stepped out of his car, someone from a nearby house shouted at him in a belligerent tone. ``What do you want? What are you doing here?'' At this point the already nervous driver, who had never been out on a repo call before, turned into a sputtering, stuttering Porky Pig, shouting out a reply that made no sense in any known language.

And then a stranger's pickup pulled up behind him. ``What's happening, bro?'' someone in the truck yelled. The driver muttered something about the flashlight. The truck drove on.

Without the flashlight, the driver got back into his car and started driving down the road. Suddenly Kate, scoping out each driveway along the road, said, "There's a Grand Am. Maybe that's it." The driver turned the car around and pulled into a driveway so she could see the license plate.

Bingo!

The driver quickly backed out of the driveway, Kate telling him to kill the headlights. There are three or four other vehicles beside the delinquent Grand Am. There are lights in the house. It's not quite 9 p.m. so nobody is sleeping.

Repo Woman, dressed in dark clothing, crept like a cat up the driveway, along the driver's side of the Pontiac, crouching so she won't be seen from inside. The driver watched her shadow heading up the drive. Besides the obvious threat of the people inside, he was worried about the neighbors like the ones up the street who had been so suspicious only moments before. He locked both doors of his car. But then, worried that something might go wrong, he quickly unlocked the passenger side, in case Kate needed to get in quickly.


Sitting in his car he remembered the words of Harry Dean Stanton in the 1984 movie Repo Man (a film Kate says she has never seen): ``See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations''

Suddenly there was a light coming from the direction of the driveway and a second later the sound of an engine starting.

Score!

Kate backed the Grand Am out of the driveway then both she and her driver went off zipping down the narrow little street, both missing the turn on the narrow dirt road that led back to the highway. They had to turn around and head back toward the house of the Grand Am. But nobody had seen Repo Woman at work. At least nobody from the house followed her. She drove back through Espanola to Santa Fe, where she parked the car in an unassuming lot off Agua Fr¡a Road, next to several rows of other recently repossessed vehicles.

For the virgin driver, it had been an intense adventure. For Kate it had been a routine "pop," an easy $75. It was her third repo that day.

Kate is one of two repo people working for Custom Wrecker Company, which holds one of about 50 reposessor's licenses in the state. Most of Custom Wrecker's business is in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, though Kate says she has repossessed vehicles as far away as Raton.

The company makes about $225 for each repo, she said, from which she is paid.

To obtain a repossessor's license from the state Regulation and Licensing Department, one must pay a fee of $250, have a surety bond of $5,000 and obtain a ``warrant'' from the state Public Services Commission's Transportation Department. This warrant shows that the repossession business is properly insured (most repo companies opt for a $500,000 policy to cover all employees, a receptionist at the PSC said) and that all drivers have been instructed about safety issues. There is a $15 fee for the warrant.

Under state law, any repo company transporting a vehicle without a warrant can be fined up to $10,000.

The application asks for a complete financial statement and asks whether the applicant or any partner in his business has ever been convicted of fraud, embezzlement or any other crime excluding traffic offenses.

The applicant must list three character references.

Henry A. Vigil, examiner supervisor at the state Financial Institutions Division of the Regulation and Licensing Department, said he receives very few complaints about repossession companies only two or three formal complaints a year.

"Most of the repo people know what they are doing," Vigil said. "In fact, of the industries we license in Financial Institutions, repossessors get the fewest complaints of all." His agency also licenses mortgage companies, small-loan companies, collection agencies, and escrow companies.

Vigil said that even though getting a repossessor's license is not easy, there is not a problem with unlicensed repo outfits in the state. "These companies are pretty good about policing themselves," he said.

The Repo Code:
``I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents, thereof. Nor, through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents come to harm.''
--Harry Dean Stanton, as "Bud" in Repo Man.


There are certain state laws that New Mexico repo men and women have to follow. While they may take an auto on the street, in a parking lot or even from a private driveway, they are not allowed to take a car from a closed garage, or take a car from property enclosed by a fence.

When a vehicle is taken without notice, the lending institution is responsible for notifying the owner that the car has been repossessed.

After a vehicle is repossessed, the owner has 10 days to get up to date on his or her loan and pay the cost of the repossession and any legal fees.

If the owner does not reclaim the vehicle, it is auctioned off. The money made in the auction goes to paying off the loan. If that amount does not completely pay off the loan, the person from which the vehicle was repossessed is responsible to pay the remaining portion.

How quickly a repo company is called is up to the individual lending company.

Collection supervisors of two area credit unions said in recent interviews that they make great efforts to work with people who have fallen behind on auto loans and that repossession is the very last resort.

"We really try to work with people," said Maria Trejo of the Guadalupe Credit Union. She said her institution will only order a repossession when the customer stops accepting calls or stops making even partial payments.

Fran Hogan of the Los Alamos Credit Union said that while the standard contract for her credit union gives it the right to repossess a vehicle without notice, "We don't do that except in extraordinary circumstances."

Her office sends out a series of letters and makes a number of phone calls in trying to get the car owner to get up to date, Hogan said.

She said that last year her institution repossessed somewhere between 50 and 75 vehicles but that these represent only a small percentage of the $72 million in the credit union's outstanding car loans.

The number of repossessions has risen slightly in the past three years, Hogan said. But this is because the number of loans has increased.

She blames contemporary attitudes about credit on defaults. "Young people think they can get something right away and worry about the credit bureau later. They don't realize what a serious mark a repossession will be on their credit record."

She also said five-year loans, while reducing the amount of monthly payments, sometimes become discouraging for those who have paid for so many years.

Some auto buyers do not realize the high cost of insurance, Hogan said. "If they don't pay their insurance, the company notifies us and we put the cost of insurance on top of the loan. And we want the (insurance) money right up front. "

Some who default on car loans think they can get away with not paying by moving the car to another state. However, Hogan said, her credit union uses the services of the American Recovery Association, a national repossession network, which will send local repo people to get the car.

"People are surprised at how much information we have on them and how we're all in cahoots," Hogan said.

Repo: A Male-dominated industry

Kate says she has wanted to be a repo woman since she was about 20 years old. She was working at an all-night gas station in her native New Jersey about 3 a.m. when a man in a tow truck drove in the station hauling a new Chevrolet Camaro.

``He'd just snagged it from an apartment complex down the road,'' she said. ``I was just intrigued. Before that my image of a repo man was a 300 gorilla with half his teeth missing.''

However, Kate who says she's had about 75 jobs in her life, mainly blue-collar, unskilled labor did not act upon her dream until last October when she saw a newspaper advertisement for a job at an area repo company.

She said the owner of that company initially was reluctant to hire a repo woman. "It's a male-dominated industry," she said.

But she was hired and worked for the company several months before going to work for Custom Wrecker.

And, she says, it's one of the most enjoyable jobs she's ever had.

Kate has repossessed more than 75 vehicles since starting last October. The work load varies. "There's some weeks I only got two. Then I've gotten up to 13 in a week."

Says Kate, "I've taken cars out of church parking lots, I've taken cars while the owner is shopping inside a store. I'm always on the look out. I've gotten very good at identifying different models of cars, especially the backs of cars."

She says she has repossessed cars for which the owner was only $100 away from paying off.

Repo people have different styles and methods of going after cars.

Gil Salazar of Del Norte Collections in Espanola said, unless instructed differently, he likes to speak face-to-face with the vehicle owner and talk them into giving up their car key voluntarily.

Kate, on the other hand prefers to take the vehicle without dealing with the owner.

Frequently she has had to confront or has been confronted by the person about to lose his or her car.

"Usually I'm just real sympathetic with them," she said. "Most of them are just honest people who have gotten in over their heads. I tell them I'm just doing my job."

There have been some fairly intense confrontations though, she said. One angry car owner tried to run her down on a south-side Santa Fe street. She called the police in that incident, which convinced her attacker to hand over the keys, she says.

Another time she received a major cussing out from a man whose check, it turned out, really was in the mail.

"That's one of the few times I ever lost it," she said. "I can usually keep my head, but he was so abusive, I sunk to his level. I suppose I should apologize to him. Maybe if I see him again ever, I'll buy him a bottle of wine."

Kate says that she still enjoys the "major adrenaline rush" she gets when she starts the engine of a stranger's car and drives off into the night.

But she also enjoys the intellectual challenge of the detective work it takes to track down people who have changed addresses, or who don't leave their vehicles in a place for an easy pop.

She's done the parcel delivery ploy countless times. She's passed herself off as a prospective employer.

Once a married man whose car she was hunting for asked her for a date without ever actually seeing her. She gave a false description of herself, arranged to meet him at a local bar. She watched from across the street as he went inside. Not only was he stood up that night, but he also lost his car.

Even though she is enjoying the job, Kate does have an underlying fear in the back of her mind. "I suppose if someone every seriously attacked me, that would be the day I'd hang it up," she said.

Despite the nature of the business and the violent images of botched repo jobs from the Repo Man movie etched into the popular consciousness violence against repossessors is rare. Henry Vigil from the state Financial Institutions Division said the only case he can remember was an instance in Las Cruces when a repo man wrecked a recovered car while being chased by the irate owner.

Three repos in one day wasn't a bad haul. But Repo Woman wanted to make one more pass at it. She convinced her driver to check out the parking lot of an south-side apartment complex where she was trying to find an elusive Dodge. She'd checked out the parking lot several times before and even knew where others of the same model were parked. But once again, the vehicle under contract was nowhere to be found.

Perhaps the owner had moved. Perhaps the owner was actively hiding it. The next day Repo Woman would check out the owner's work place, maybe call some of the references listed on the loan application. Repo Woman was confident that in the near future she'd be feeling that adrenaline rush when she was behind the wheel of the stranger's car.

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