"So You Want to Be a Repo Man?"
by Dan Kapelovitz
When most people think of car repossessions, they picture Emilio Estevez's character Otto Maddox in the 1984 cult classic "Repo Man." But the reality of what is often euphemistically referred to in the business as "automobile recovery" is far different from the cinematic version--except, of course, for the radioactive dead aliens and the glowing Green '64 Chevy Malibu that flies.
Meet Mike Hession, a real-life repo man. His lifelong career in the car-recovery business began when he answered a newspaper want-ad, seeking a tow-truck driver.
Hired on the spot, Hession soon learned that the company he was working for was in the business of car repossessions, providing banks and other lending institutions with the recovery of their collateral.
The 18-year-old Chicago resident took to the job immediately, soaking up the ways of the profession like a sponge. After only 15 minutes of training, Hession was already cruising the mean streets of Chicagoland, including the notorious projects complex known as Carbrini-Green. (It's the ghetto where the horror film "Candyman" takes place.)
Five years later, Hession had an on-the-job brush with death. Working for a different company, Hession and his associate found the unit they were to repossess--a 1987 Chevy Caprice--in an infamous section of Chicago's South Side, so dangerous that even most police officers try to avoid it. Hession started the car by "drilling" the ignition, and just as he put the automobile in reverse, the debtor rushed out of his house, emptying his .357 Magnum in the duo's direction. Three of the bullets smashed into the vehicle, and a fourth one hit Hessian's partner in the head. The gun-toting debtor turned out to be a cop who was currently on disability for alcoholism and other psychological disorders.
Mike immediately radioed headquarters for help and to inform his boss of the perilous situation. Instead of showing concern for his loyal employees, the first thing out of the mouth of Hession's boss was, "Did you get the car?"
Hession was in shock that the man, whom he had until that moment always respected and looked up to, cared more about an automobile than the welfare of his workers. At that moment, Hession made a life-changing decision; he figured that if he was going to risk his very existence in the name of automobile recovery, he might as well do it for his own business.
In 1989, with the help of his father, Mike created Shamrock Recovery Service and never looked back. He even got a few members of his family to quit their jobs and work for the company.
Mike says that the best way to avoid having your car repossessed--besides keeping up with payments, obviously--is to contact the lender and make arrangements. "The last thing a bank wants to do is repossess a car," explains Hession. "They lose six to eight thousand dollars per car. They just want contact with the debtor. The bank will work with you. Ninety percent of the time when a repo's assigned it's because they don't hear from the debtor."
Hession estimates that about 70% of the time he already has the key to the automobile, making retrieval extremely easy, as long as the car is out in the open. Unlike many in the repo business, Mike works by the book. He won't break into someone's garage to retrieve a car because that is illegal. Even so, Hession still gets his car. "You wait for them and follow them around, and they stop for gas or go into a store," he explains.
Not all repo men let something as inconvenient as the law get in their way. Steve, a California-based car retriever, says as long as his clients don't know he's performing illegal activities in the pursuit of a vehicle, that's all that matters. "I'm like an inch away from being an actual thief because these places are so secured," says Steve. "There's no way you can walk into them." Many of the cars are in gated apartment-building parking garages, protected by cameras and security guards.
"I walk around until I find an [unguarded] door," says Steve. "I have a metal tool that I can slide between the door and the jam. As long as it's not a deadbolt, I can open the door within a half of a second; it's almost faster than using a key."
Getting in is the easy part. But getting out can be a challenge because if the debtor knows his automobile is about to be repossessed, he'll often remove the gate opener from his car. "I'll find another car that's easy to get into, and I'll use their remote. I just open the gate, put the remote back in their car and leave."
While Steve has never been busted while recovering automobiles, he has had some close calls.
"I've been chased by security guards, but I'm driving a car, and they're on foot," he says. "Security guards really get goofy every once in awhile. Sometimes you can approach them, and they might work with you, especially if you have papers. But some of them will get all Barney Fife on you. I don't approach them at all anymore, because I don't know what I'm gonna deal with."
Steve's closest call came when he and one of his employees, a man who had just served a lengthy prison sentence for bank robbery, went on a repo mission in a dangerous neighborhood.
"We had to repossess this Toyota flatbed. We could see it in the back of the shop, but there were all of these gangbangers all out there. As soon as we pull into the yard, they all come out to us. I just knew I was gonna die there."
Luckily for Steve, his employee had a secret weapon. He ripped off his wifebeater real quick, and as soon as the gang members saw the ex-con's prison tattoos, they stopped in their tracks and treated him as if he were a God. "When they found out he just got out of prison and was with this Mexican Mafia or whatever it was, they gave us the keys. He saved my life."
Steve uses an arsenal of information-gathering techniques to locate cars. "If I have address, I can get your phone number in five minutes, even if it's unlisted or disconnected, plus getting copies of your phone bill or your cell phone bill is no problem at all." Steve checks for numbers that the debtor calls often and cracks their addresses. "If I can't find you, we can find out where the car got serviced. Ninety percent of the time, people get serviced at the dealership because they get a free oil change. They always leave a phone number at the dealership, and then I'll break the number."
Once he locates the car, he often has to think fast on his feet and do some smooth talking. He once found a car in the back yard of a house, locked behind a huge metal gate. He couldn't find a remote to open the gate. Suddenly he saw a woman in the house. Steve went to the door and rang the bell and told the woman he was with consumer affairs. "I said, 'Do you know you have a stolen car in your backyard? I have to get the Sheriff's Department out here because you're in possession of stolen property.' She says, 'It's not my car; my husband's brother keeps leaving that car here.' I said, 'Okay, I'll tell you what I do: I won't get the Sheriff out here. If you open that gate and let me get this car out of here, I'll pretend I never saw you and I'll just go after your brother-in-law." That's exactly what she did.
Although Steve is willing to break the law and fib a little to get the job done, he looks down on the characters of the film "Repo Man." "I think those are very low-class people," says Steve. "I don't cuss and all that stuff."
(This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Men's Edge Magazine)
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