An Unrepentant Repo Man
Claims he seized his own mother's car
Since the recession began in late 2007, Alfred Erzak has spent most nights in his blue Ford F-350. He is not homeless; he’s just really busy. With repossession requests from banks up 44% in 2008, repo men like Erzak are working around the clock.
“I get like 7 to 10 cars a day, [up] from like three cars a year ago,” said the 27-year-old from Trenton, N.J. Nearby Interstate Auto, the company he works for, now operates 24 hours a day to meet rising repo demand.
Banks hire repo men, known more politely as “repossession specialists,” to tow vehicles from the homes of debtors who have fallen behind on their car payments.
“I’ve probably slept five hours since the 1st [of December], since I’m always driving these days,” a scruffy-faced Erzak said one morning, as he rubbed his eyes to stay awake.
He barely has time to grab a meal, evidenced by the cashew crumbs and fresh coffee stains on his dashboard.
Each morning, Erzak checks an online database of people who are behind on their car payments, sent to him by local banks.
According to a study by Experian Automotive, delinquent auto payments rose 9% in 2008. Banks can dispatch a repo man after only one month of delinquency.
After grabbing a Slurpee from a nearby 7-11, Erzak punches the first address in to his GPS unit, and heads out on his daily voyage, typically in central New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
“As long as the car is in plain sight and not in a garage or locked up, I’m going to tow it away,” he said.
When he locates the intended vehicle, Erzak backs up his truck, straps the vehicle to his towing bed and drives away as fast as he can.
He conducts the entire repossession with a yellow switch box in the cab of his truck, for maximum inconspicuousness and quick.
Many people try to avoid the repo man by keeping their cars at work, or putting the cars in their garages.
“If they are avoiding me and have moved the car, I’ll call their family, pretending to be an old friend, to find them. You have to lie sometimes to get to them,” he added.
He recalled an encounter with a woman who backed her car into a stop sign, while her toddler sat unbuckled in the seat, to avoid the approaching blue repo truck.
“She should have at least strapped the kid in,” he said, slightly disturbed.
Victims can get violent.
“I had this one guy pull a gun on me, and this other woman blew up her car trying to drive it off my tow truck,” he said, chuckling.
He keeps a metal baton and a concealed can of pepper spray in the cab of his truck, in case he has to protect himself.
Sometimes feels sorry for the repossession victims, he conceded.
“Yes, when someone says they couldn’t pay because of medical bills, I feel bad.”
In a strange twist, he repossessed his own mother’s car, when she was unable to make her monthly loan payments.
After reflecting for a moment, he added, “I get paid by how many cars I pick up, not by the hour, so I can’t feel too bad for them.” He earns about $100 for each vehicle he delivers.
Repossessions are a last resort for banks, as they pay over $500 in legal fees when processing a claim in court.
“We seek a voluntary payment arrangement and send the debtor a number of letters,” said Scott Feldman, a repossession attorney. He added that, since many banks are strapped for cash these days, they are especially aggressive about repossession.
Once a car is repossessed, debtors have two weeks to pay to retrieve their vehicle. If they can’t, banks sell the car to an auto auctioneer. What with today’s high supply, auctioneers are purchasing the cars at deep discounts.
“We usually see about 30% of repossessed vehicles, and now we’re up to about 50%,” said Michael Rodriguez, general manager of the New Jersey State Auto Auction. At an auto auction, anyone can bid a car, typically paying far less than dealership prices.
Still, auction buyers usually need financing, Rodriguez said.
“Last week, if we sold 40 cars, I’d say 25 were financed,” he said. Potential buyers don’t want to part with their cash during the recession, preferring loans.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that people couldn’t pay, but I see it as a great deal for me,” said elated buyer Milton Brazan, who recently received financing to buy a repossessed 2006 Nissan 350Z.
After a five-year career as a repo man, Erzak refuses to sign up for credit cards. He’s grown too familiar with the damage bad credit can wreak on peoples’ lives.
“I always carry cash, except when I go repossessing — for security purposes of course,” he said.
He admits that he’s driven by something more than booming business.
“I get goose bumps every time I pick up a vehicle,” he said. It’s fun, and I don’t plan on doing anything else.”