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COLUMN ONE : Hard Road to Tow for Repo Men : With the recession, business might be expected to pick up. But with lenders turning lenient, times are tough. Worse, more car owners are carrying guns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In gold chains and driving a white Jaguar, Jeff Friedman travels in style through a world of deception and fear. Under cover of night, he is out there on the streets--an unseen marauder looking for automobiles. He breaks in, jiggers the ignition, disables the alarms--whatever it takes--and scrams.

On good weeks, he and his underlings get away with 50 to 75 cars--Porsches, Ferraris, you name it. He can get most cars in less than half a minute; if he takes longer, the risks soar like a bad balloon payment. Three times Friedman has been shot at. Three other times he has had irrational men put a gun to his head.

“It’s rough . . . really dangerous,” says the breezy, fast-talking Friedman, 42, who is not a thief but a veteran auto repossessor--a “repo man.” The task involves reclaiming vehicles from buyers who fall behind in their payments.

In car-crazy California, the job is a legal means of livelihood for no fewer than 560 state-certified agents, not to mention untold numbers of illegal, unlicensed operators who also scramble for orders.

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Los Angeles, the reputed “repo capital” of the world, now supports 65 repossession companies employing about 160 repossessors, while Orange County, with 23 companies and 73 employees, ranks second statewide. Riverside and San Diego counties rank third and fourth.

To those in the gritty subculture, auto repossession has always been a difficult road. Reviled by consumers, barred by California law from carrying weapons, repo men do the necessary dirty work of banks and car dealerships, using only the pocket tools of criminals and the cunning of spies.

Recently, however, the hard-nosed business has fallen on particularly hard times. A sagging economy and a dramatic increase in inner-city violence have reduced profits while escalating the dangers. More than ever, repo men such as Jake Worshim, 49, who logs 2,500 miles a week in his tow truck, find themselves weighing a $290 repossession fee against the chances of winding up in a hospital, or worse.

“I consider it like carrying a rattlesnake around in a wet bag,” Worshim says of the trade. One wrong move and “it’s going to bite you. You’ve got to be careful. One mistake in this business can be bad.”

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The economic woes have come during a recessionary time when many would expect repossessors to be humming along at full throttle. The reason they aren’t: With car sales down, banks and other lenders have become unusually lenient, willing to tolerate tardy payments or to rewrite loans to avoid ordering repossessions.

Friedman, whose crew of seven repossessors at El Monte-based Sherlock Recovery Services once handled more than 300 cars a month, now handles about 200. Many smaller firms have seen their orders cut in half.

“The industry’s off probably 40%" statewide, said Robert W. Kerr, president of the California Assn. of Licensed Repossessors, which represents 275 firms. “Some companies are flourishing, but some are really hurting.”

Threats of violence in the city--nothing new to repo men--have worsened, not only because of gangs but because of a proliferation of firearms. “Many repo companies won’t even go into East L.A. or South-Central L.A. or parts of Pomona” because of gangs and guns, one veteran repossessor complained. “It’s never been this dangerous.”

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No statistics are kept on repossessor deaths and injuries, but the hazards are often compared to those facing police officers. Kerr said fatalities have been few, “but there have been a lot of close scrapes . . . a lot of war stories.”

War stories--every repo man has them.

Jay Daly, 47, a Gardena repossessor who has been recovering cars for more than 20 years, has piled up pulse-pounding moments like so many shiny hubcaps. Once, he was about to flee with a car when a woman jumped inside brandishing a derringer, screaming while they wrestled over the gun--until Daly pinned her hand against the car roof and got her to drop it.

Another time in Palmdale, Daly and a partner picked up a “voluntary"--a vehicle surrendered voluntarily, albeit reluctantly. Driving away on the open road, Daly was startled to see the infuriated debtor pull alongside his van in a sports car.

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“He came up on me real fast,” Daly said. “Then I saw the shotgun laying on the window . . . and he started shooting. He hit the van twice. He’s chasing me, getting closer and closer, going to make another shot.”

Daly said he swerved, forcing his pursuer to the embankment. The driver went into a skid and disappeared in Daly’s rearview mirror.

These are not everyday incidents, but they happen with disturbing regularity. A few weeks ago, repo man Mark Schwartz, 29, of Sunland Recovery moved in for a repossession in downtown Los Angeles. A woman objected by drawing a gun.

Surreptitiously, Schwartz managed to dial 911 on a cellular phone, and the woman was arrested.

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“To me, the car represents money,” Schwartz said matter-of-factly. “I’m not going to leave it. I’m not going to make excuses. I’m going to get the car.”

In the repo trade, making the recovery is the ultimate high--not only the source of nearly all income, but also a matter of pride, of reputation. A successful repo man has the brashness of a street fighter, a zest for the adrenaline rush that invariably accompanies a difficult repossession.

Much like the good Canadian Mountie, he nearly always gets the job done--even if it takes days, or weeks. The trick is to do it without getting caught. Occasionally, the task involves stakeouts. Or tracing people who have disappeared or changed addresses. Or returning to the same house two or three times, playing hunches, living on wits and perseverance.

Once in Watts, Friedman was trying to get a car in the dead of night in a driving rainstorm. The scene unfolded like “a bad movie,” Friedman said, with the car refusing to start and the angry debtor storming out of the house with a shotgun. Friedman hurriedly slid his tools under the front seat while the gunman leveled his barrel at Friedman’s head, screaming: “I’m going to kill you!”

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“For some reason, without thinking . . . I put on this act that I was drunk,” the repo man recalled. “I said: ‘Hey, my car broke down and I’m freezing. I just jumped in your car to sleep for the night. Please, don’t shoot me--I’ll leave.”

Staggering out of the car, Friedman departed, expecting the worst. But no shots were fired.

“About a week later,” he said with a grin, “I came back and got the car. My tools were still under the seat.”

To the chagrin of most repo men, debtors who become violent--firing guns, bashing in fenders, slicing up seats--often are unaware that they can get the car back if they catch up on the payments. Friedman, like others, despairs at the public’s lack of awareness and the thanklessness of his job.

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“Some people say: ‘How can you sleep at nights?’ ” he mused. “What they don’t understand is if there weren’t guys like me out there--if there weren’t some way for banks and lenders to recoup their losses--they wouldn’t even make car loans.”

Still, repossessors do almost nothing as a group to cultivate a public image. Scarcely one repo man in 10 will talk openly about the trade, and even Kerr of the state association spoke grudgingly, saying bluntly: “We don’t want publicity. If we start educating people, we’ve got trouble.”

The tools of the trade are simple--usually a set of lock picks and a few similar devices. Many times, no tools are needed when a bank or car dealership provides a code number enabling a repo man to cut a copy of the key.

Even in the slow economy, repossession remains, like burglary, a 24-hour enterprise. Many repo men work at night, targeting homes. Others work by day, concentrating on business addresses.

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Styles vary greatly. Some repo men work in pairs; others work alone, hiding their own cars around a corner or in a supermarket lot for later retrieval. Friedman--who has self-published a book about his experiences called “License to Steal"--cruises in his Jag, but his son, Robert, 21, prefers using a tow truck. He has a new type that can lift a car by the wheels without the repo man ever leaving the cab.

Daly alternates between an inconspicuous Cadillac and a huge, damn-the-torpedoes flatbed truck. “That big flatbed, it’s as intimidating as hell,” he said. “Nobody ever comes out (of the house) when you’re hooking up a car on a flatbed.”

Under state law, repo men must notify police immediately after taking a car to prevent false theft reports. Personal items in a car must be made available to the debtor within a few days. In making a recovery, repo men are permitted in private driveways but are forbidden to enter locked garages, a practice that was commonplace before the state cracked down on the industry.

Since 1982, repossessors have been regulated in California by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which handles public complaints--nearly 200 last year--and levies fines against illegal or unlicensed operators.

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Before that, repossessors were widely perceived as renegades operating on the fringe of lawlessness. The stereotype--as portrayed in the dark, seedy 1984 film “Repo Man"--was this: a thug carrying weapons and a chip on his shoulder who recovered cars through the threat of violence.

Illegal and unethical practices were considered widespread. The bad operators broke garage door locks, stole personal property from vehicles, kept Corvettes and Mercedes for days at a time to take them on dates and joy rides.

Over the years, the industry’s association has joined with the Department of Consumer Affairs to clean up much of the problem, state regulators said. Yet, bad operators still exist, and the industry’s schizophrenic nature--engaging in what some view as legalized theft--has left it with an image crisis that will not go away.

“People are always upset when their cars are taken away,” said Gretchen Werry, the program manager overseeing the industry for Consumer Affairs. “Just by the very nature of what they do, (repossessors) get a bad rap.”

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Daly, who sports a Clint Eastwood look, with his hair combed back and a cigarette dangling from his fingers, talked of the pains he has taken to keep his company reputable. His half-dozen employees are either family members or trusted friends who have worked with him for years.

Still, if he were hiring, he would face a dilemma, Daly said. “If a guy came in here and I say: ‘You ever stole a car?’ and if he says ‘No,’ I wouldn’t hire him. What the hell good is he?”

No matter what his background, the working repo man faces obstacles of all variety. Most have learned to cope with ever-proliferating car alarms and steering wheel locking devices. “Who pays attention to a car alarm?” asked one veteran repossessor who asked not to be identified. “I’ve worked on a car for three or four minutes with the alarm going off.”

Who listens? Well, maybe Corvette owners, as Daly found out. He faced the repo man’s version of double jeopardy in a Corvette with a blaring alarm--and an engine that would not start. Six men dragged him from the vehicle and “whaled” on him for 10 minutes.

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“Oh, it gets hectic,” Daly said.

Locking devices can be picked or broken. But dogs are another story. Friedman remembered borrowing a suit of armor to go after a pickup truck because a trained pit bull had been tethered to the truck bed. The dog managed to scramble into the cab, chewing on Friedman’s metal sleeve all the way to the repo yard.

Often, wary debtors set up other obstacles, wrapping their cars in chains or blocking them behind other vehicles. Once, Worshim took off in a van and got a quarter-mile before the entire front end crashed to the street.

Someone had removed the wheel lugs.

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Offering one complaint after another, Daly talks about how the field is next to impossible, how “this ain’t a job to have for the rest of your life.” Then the next minute, he is professing to love it and rambling on with other stories--the time he got the Beverly Hills limousine, the time he was in a used car lot and a couple of trucks blocked his exit, trying to stop the repo.

“I said: ‘You’d better move that (bleep), because I’m coming through!’ ” Daly said. “I got back about 35 or 40 feet and just stepped on it.” With a knowing nod, the repo man smiled. “Them trucks, they got out of the way.”


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