AUDIE CORNISH, host:
A new study is shining light on the sometimes shady world of the repo man. If you don't make your car payments, someone can be hired to repossess it. They might tow it from a parking lot, but sometimes repo men go farther: break into people's garages, fights can break out, people get hurt, some have been killed. And so, some groups are calling for greater regulation.
NPR's Chris Arnold first takes us to a small town in Vermont.
(Soundbite of traffic)
CHRIS ARNOLD: I'm riding in a police car with Officer James Beraldi(ph) near Windsor, Vermont. And it wasn't too far away from here where there was a repossession attempt that really didn't go so well, huh?
Mr. JAMES BERALDI (Police Officer): Yes. It was totally out of control, totally out of control.
ARNOLD: Earlier this winter, a repo man jumped on one of those off-road, four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. He was repossessing it. His plan was to ride away on it. And maybe to avoid going on the highway, he decided to drive it over a railroad bridge.
Mr. BERALDI: We're crossing over the railroad tracks right now.
ARNOLD: Up the tracks from here, the bridge is long and crosses over the deep water of the Connecticut River.
Mr. BERALDI: Yes. Instead of going on the road, they decided to - this guy decided to go on the railroad trestle. It's very high. I mean, I don't know the exact feet, but his plan was definitely not to meet an Amtrak train coming at him.
ARNOLD: But there he is crossing the bridge and he sees a train approaching it coming at him head-on. And he can't turn around the ATV.
Mr. BERALDI: There's no exit. It was a very narrow trestle. I mean, he was like thumping over, going thump, thump, thump, thump. And, you know, all of the sudden, oh, you know, train.
ARNOLD: So, the repo guy keeps driving straight at the train, kind of like a game of chicken, to try to beat the train to the edge of the bridge.
Mr. BERALDI: He was staring, literally staring death, and he had some time to think about it, right in the eye. I mean, now, that's probably a moment in life where he's like, I'm going to die right now.
ARNOLD: Then at the last second...
Mr. BERALDI: ...he jumped off the ATV going straight at the train, right over a railroad trestle. He barely jumped off, within, like, two seconds he would have been killed.
ARNOLD: As it turned out, the ATV was crushed, but the guy survived with minor injuries. And actually, this is not an isolated case. There are apparently all kinds of crazy repossessions gone awry happening all over the country.
Mr. JOHN VAN-ALST (Attorney, National Consumer Law Center): It is all too common.
ARNOLD: John Van-Alst is an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. He's just released a report on the repossession industry. He says in most all states, repo men don't have to be licensed. Some are ex-convicts; some carry weapons. Violence can break out between the property owner and the repo man.
It's just kind of a totally unregulated cowboy kind of situation?
Mr. VAN-ALST: Certainly, yeah. Sort of this vigilante-type of repossession by kind of trickery or, you know, in the dark of night or else sort of intimidation and whatnot. And so, oftentimes, of course, it's going to lead to this confrontation.
ARNOLD: Just by reviewing recent news articles, Van-Alst turned up 54 cases where fights broke out, people were injured or children were inadvertently hauled off inside of repossessed cars. Firearms were often involved also. So, Van-Alst would like to require that the courts and police get involved in repossessions, but repo men say that's unrealistic.
Mr. JOE TAYLOR (Repo Man): There's probably three, four million pieces that are repossessed every year. You would totally disrupt our court system in this country.
ARNOLD: Joe Taylor is a repo man who also runs a school to train people how to repossess property safely and responsibly. And he actually agrees with the consumer group that repo men should have to get background checks and be licensed and trained.
Mr. TAYLOR: Suppose the bank sends the repo man out to pick up your car. Suppose that repo man just happens to be a convicted felon, drug addict or just a guy with a real anger management problem. They are hiring him strictly on a contingency basis - meaning that if he doesn't repossess your car, he doesn't get paid.
ARNOLD: Taylor says that's a recipe for trouble.
Mr. TAYLOR: This is a serious public safety issue. I've been called as an expert witness on five different death cases.
ARNOLD: Taylor says one thing that's not helping right now is a reality-style TV show called "Operation Repo."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Operation Repo")
Unidentified Man: We just want the car.
(Soundbite of people arguing)
Mr. TAYLOR: These guys are huge, you know, 300-pound people. You'll see them fighting the debtors, pulling guns on each other - it's all staged. But you'd be amazed at some of the people that watch that show, and they're ego-driven, and they call me so they can get in the repossession business.
ARNOLD: Taylor has helped to draft legislation in a few states that would require background checks and training, but he says most legislators are not paying very much attention.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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