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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Good Story on CA Repo Man

Here's the story from the Lodi News-Sentinel. Nice job on it by reporter Layla Bohm!

When the gray Chevrolet 3500 pulls out of a Beckman Road driveway, the driver is on a mission: He plans to return with another vehicle in tow.

In all likelihood, he'll arrive at an address, effortlessly lower the towing equipment on the back of his truck and drive off within a minute or two.

The driver is a vehicle repossessor working for Lodi-based Accurate Adjustments. He often works at night, using the darkness to his advantage so he can avoid the vehicle's owner.

There are plenty of vehicles to be repossessed, with the economy likely contributing to skyrocketing statistics: Five years ago, 453 vehicles were taken back from their owners in the fiscal 2003-04 year, according to Lodi police. In the fiscal year ending in June, 814 owners lost their vehicles.

Unlike in television shows, those vehicle owners are rarely the drug-crazed deadbeats who trigger brawls lit by flashing police lights.

What's much more likely is that the car's owners will simply watch the repossession process, resigned to the fact that auto payments got to be too much. Sometimes they cry, asking for one more chance to come up with the money, or to at least get their personal belongings out of the car.

That's the real job of a repossessor, according to Shane Freitas, who owns Accurate Adjustments. The sole goal is to retrieve a vehicle safely.

"I try to train my guys not to judge people. They have to have eyes in the back of their head, but they shouldn't judge," he said. "I like to think people thought they could afford the car."

Freitas, who owned his business for 13 years and previously spent a number of years in the industry, sees his profession as a service. Repossession is a way to recover property while avoiding more costly methods such as the court system.

"It saves the consumer money and it keeps the interest rates lower," Freitas said. "If they don't get their collateral back, they'll raise rates for (consumers)."

Freitas, 39, has been around the repo business for much of his life.

Born in Hawaii, Freitas lived there until he was 9, after his mother met a man in the military who settled in Arkansas. Then they moved to California to be closer to family. Freitas' dad became an auto mechanic, and his shop was next door to a repo business.

Freitas got to know the owner, named Nick, who gave him some part-time jobs accompanied by a warning: "He told me, whatever you do, make sure you don't get involved in this business."

That advice didn't stick.

Courtesy pays off

Now he owns a large building on the eastern edge of Lodi, complete with a $40,000 alarm system that's constantly monitored and includes motion-detecting cameras.

Freitas has owned his business for 13 years, and in spring 2008 he moved the company from Stockton to Lodi. He said the reason was because Lodi police respond quickly to building alarm calls.

The tan structure is surrounded by a brick wall and black iron fence, but inside, his nine full-time employees have the use of a modern kitchen. Freitas' office desk is partially taken up by three computer monitors, along with a large iced coffee drink.

A map of Hawaii hangs on one wall, and nearby are photos of his wife and two daughters.

Vehicle repossessions in Lodi

By fiscal years ending in June:
2003-04: 453
2004-05: 433
2005-06: 427
2006-07: 542
2007-08: 621
2008-09: 814
The vehicles ranged from motor homes to boats to dirt bikes, and included many sport-utility vehicles, said Lodi Police Lt. Chris Piombo.
Source: Lodi Police Department

About state repossession licenses

California currently has 278 repossessor agencies, which are licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs.

A total of 775 licensed employees are working for repo companies, and another 291 people are "qualified managers," which means they are responsible for making sure licenses are current and valid, said spokesman Russ Heimerich.

The license process includes a background check and takes about two weeks, he said. Licenses must be renewed every two years, or if the employee moves to a different repo business.

Accurate Adjustments is the only repo company in Lodi, and is one of only three in San Joaquin County. Two new, small ones are based in Thornton and Mountain House, with two licensed repossessors each. Accurate Adjustments has eight licensed repossessors, according to state records.

To check the license of a repossession business or employee, or others in the security industry, go to www.bsis.ca.gov/online_services/verify_license.shtml.

News-Sentinel staff

A spacious, enclosed garage holds cars that have recently been towed, with sport-utility vehicles on one side and sedans on the other.

They're parked more closely than the typical parallel parking job, but even that doesn't present a problem for the tow trucks, which Freitas demonstrated.

He remote-started a tow truck from a button on the key ring, and a computer turned on inside the truck. Cameras mounted on the truck gave Freitas a complete view as he lowered a boom, opened a claw-like device and slid it under a parked car — all as he sat inside the truck.

Then the claws lifted the front end of the car and swiveled it, pulling it effortlessly out from between two cars and then rolling it on its rear tires.

"People are always curious about how we get their cars without damaging them," he said with a slight smile.

That's another aspect of the job — the people whose cars have been taken.

Often they run outside to their vehicle before the repo truck has left. And, TV-related assumptions aside, Freitas said his employees frequently just knock on a door before leaving with the car.

That's the method that three-year employee Mike Deluna prefers. He hooks the car up to his tow truck, which means it has legally been repossessed, and then he often knocks on the door. That gives people a chance to get their personal belongings out of the car, and he can ask for the keys to make life easier for everyone.

After all, it saves company time from having to take a full inventory of a vehicle and store the items, which fill another room at the business.

As a family man with children, Deluna said he sometimes runs into people whose vehicles he repossessed, and the professional attitude makes such encounters much easier.

Very rarely are people actually surprised when the repo truck comes, Freitas said, since finance companies first try to collect payment directly from the debtors.

When it comes down to the actual repo, Freitas emphasizes professionalism to his employees.

"The repossessor's demeanor sets the tone for the whole operation," he said.

From motorcycles to a Rolls

Freitas avoids most accusations and arguments because of the cameras on his trucks. They record audio and video.

One time, Freitas said, he had hooked up a car to a tow truck when a young woman came running out of the nearby mobile home, clad only in a bra and panties. A man followed her, making threats to shoot Freitas.

Sheriff's deputies were called, and in the meantime the woman had gotten into the car. When deputies came, she said she had been there before Freitas arrived, and he was facing arrest for kidnapping.

Freitas told the deputies it was all recorded, and he pressed the "play" button on the computer in his truck. He was no longer threatened with arrest.

In all his years of work, Freitas has seen plenty of interesting situations. There was the time he towed a motor home and his brother-in-law was helping inventory the contents.

"I'm saying, 'Wow, the only thing missing is the kitchen sink,' and then he tosses a sink out," Freitas said with a grin.

One time a man came to the business hoping to get a camera that had been in his vehicle. He was crying because the pictures meant so much to him, and Freitas eventually found the camera that had become wedged under a seat.

"It's all how you treat people," he said. "Sometimes people just fall on hard times."

He's towed all kinds of vehicles, ranging from motor homes to motorcycles to plenty of cars.

The most expensive car he's towed? A $350,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom, for which the driver still owed $275,000.

"I didn't sleep when that thing was here," Freitas said as he stood in the enclosed garage, adding that he was quite relieved when the finance company's truck came to pick up the car.

Facing a gun

In all his years in the repo business, Freitas said he was only hit once, when he let down his guard and a bunch of men surrounded him, with one punching him.

But that's not the only risk.

"We've had guns pointed at us, we've had knives pulled on us. I had bullet holes in the side of a truck, and didn't even know we were being shot at," Freitas said.

The gun-pointing incident isn't something Freitas has forgotten. He still remembers staring at the barrel of the gun, and seeing that the man's finger was in the trigger.

And the man was crying.

Freitas managed to calm the man down and get him to lower the gun and talk. It turned out that the gunman was so upset because he really had made his car payments. Unknown to him, the auto dealer was pocketing the money.

Freitas had been hearing the same story from other repossession victims — though they didn't brandish guns — and knew something was wrong. Freitas said he got state investigators involved, and ultimately 38 cease-and-desist orders were served on car lot owners along Wilson Way in Stockton.

Freitas still tells the story because it's an exception in his line of work, and because it shows that every situation is different.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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