EDITORIAL: Six Deaths Since 2006 In Car-Repo Incidents; Pistols, Knives, Autos Used As Weapons; Children Hauled Away In Repos

UPDATED 4:48 P.M. EDT (U.S.A.) We’ve been writing about Narc That Car (NTC) and Data Network Affiliates (DNA), two multilevel-marketing (MLM) firms that recruit people to write down the license-plate numbers of cars for entry in a database. The information purportedly is or will be sold to companies in the business of repossessing automobiles.

Neither NTC nor DNA affiliates appear to receive formal training on the propriety, safety and legality of recording plate numbers or any training on the repo business itself — even though they suddenly are part of the repo industry’s information supply chain.

Affiliates for the companies are independent contractors. They use their own vehicles to arrive at places such as Walmart, doctors’ offices, universities, schools and other places cars are parked in a group, and have been instructed by promoters simply to start writing down plate numbers or recording them with video cameras and cell phones for later entry in a database.

Some affiliates have instructed others to behave inconspicuously, which has fueled concerns that the firms are operating as a sort of private Big Brother and are not interested in operating in the plain light of day because the business of recording plate numbers would attract too much attention.

Affiliates’ promotional efforts have focused almost exclusively on how much money can be made by recording plate numbers and recruiting others to record plate numbers. There has been little — if any — training on issues such as whether affiliates need the permission of store managers to record plate numbers on private property, how to behave if confronted by retailers, shoppers and police, whether solicitors’ licenses are required in individual jurisdictions, whether additional insurance protection is required or recommended, whether the videos recording plate numbers should be preserved, whether handwritten notes should be preserved and whether affiliates need to secure a bond, let the police know they are recording plate numbers and make themselves available as witnesses if the information they record later becomes part of an investigation or court case.

Repo cases sometimes lead to spectacular, costly litigation, criminal and civil cases and monumental pain for plaintiffs and defendants. Some litigation has evolved as a result of deaths linked to incidents involving repossessions. Other litigation has evolved because repo agents were alleged to have broken laws.

Unanswered Questions

Paying people to write down license-plate numbers and providing an opportunity to earn additional income by recruiting others to do the same thing is a new business that has surfaced in the context of MLM. Many questions are unanswered:

Who pays if an NTC or DNA affiliate suddenly needs an attorney? Who pays if an NTC or DNA affiliate wrecks his or her car while recording plate numbers and did not tell the insurance company the car was being used for a commercial purpose? Who pays if an NTC affiliate causes a wreck? Who pays if an NTC or DNA affiliate gets struck by a car that is passing through a parking lot or backing out of a space while the affiliate is preoccupied with recording plate data? Who pays if an NTC or DNA affiliate gets involved in a fight with a person who does not want his or her plate number recorded? Who pays if a repo case ends up in court and the repo target subpoenas NTC or DNA or forces discovery to learn how the companies came in possession of the information on where the car was parked? Who pays if a privacy lawsuit gets filed or a lawsuit emerges out of any other context of the NTC and DNA business models?

Some companies that have the need to repossess cars also are in the business of title loans, meaning they finance cars for people with poor credit, arrange weekly or monthly payments and use the vehicle’s title as security to guarantee repayment. The repo man for title-loan companies comes if payments are not made. Banks and other traditional lenders also use repo men.

Context Of Repo Business Vague Or Lacking In Presentations By NTC And DNA Promoters

Three days ago we wrote about “Rena the Realtor,” the mythological borrower depicted and demonized in a video ad for NTC. “Rena,” a blond, blue-eyed, white woman with perfect teeth, presumably overspent to purchase a trophy car to impress her real-estate clients. When she missed her payments, a repo company was able to seize the car — thanks to a mythological NTC member named “John,” also white, who was depicted as having the bearing of a cop.

Implicit in the video was the message that repping for Narc That Car was like being a cop and that NTC affiliates should not feel sorry for “Rena,” who had the money to work out at a gym but not to pay for her car, which she had hidden from the repo man.

Real-life “Renas” do exist, of course — but “Rena’s” depiction as a young, white, single, ambitious Realtor presumably able to qualify for traditional financing who starts hiding her trophy car from the repo man (presumably not parking it at home or her workplace) when she’s not using it to shuttle herself to the gym — may not reflect the experience of a broad set of customers targeted in repo actions, which for the most part are not supervised by law enforcement and the courts.

In real life, people of all races start missing car payments for all sorts of reasons: sudden and unexpected job losses, medical crises, illness, divorce. All of these things can cause a swift descent into poverty.

Is it true that some people buy trophy cars to impress clients and almost immediately find themselves unable to make their payments? Yes. But it is equally true that legitimate misfortune typically plays a role in repo cases — and that people who have their cars repossessed are friends, neighbors, family members and acquaintances who have no ill intent.

Repo Agents Are Not Cops

There have been claims that repo agents have “pulled over” cars as though they were cops, treated subjects of repos as though they were prey and threatened repo subjects with “jail.” Some repo agents have been charged with crimes and put on trial amid allegations they broke the law while repossessing cars. Not all repo agents behave officiously or reprehensibly, but to pretend there is not a Wild West element in the repo business is to discard the truth.

NTC’s mythological “John” recorded “Rena’s” plate number after exiting a hair salon. “Rena” worked out at a gym near the salon. The clear message of the video was that “John” was performing a civic duty that resulted in a happy ending for the company that retrieved its collateral as a result of NTC’s man in the field.

Writing down license-plate numbers was portrayed in the video as fundamentally a carefree and easy business — just another way to make money while performing a critical service. Dollar signs were superimposed over cars in the video.

Sometimes, though, the endings in real-life repo incidents aren’t happy. Heavy machinery is involved. Emotions are involved (on both sides of a repo transaction). Children sometimes are involved. Uncertainty is involved. Unlicensed people (sometimes people with criminal records) are involved. Safety often is ignored.

Repo companies sometimes engage in activity that can be described as prowling late at night on private property or exercising police powers they do not lawfully possess. People sometimes get killed, injured and traumatized. African-Americans and other minority groups have been among the victims of repo cases run amok.

National Consumer Law Center Describes Underbelly Of Repo Business

Screen shot: A report by the National Consumer Law Center notes episodes of violence and instances in which children were towed away in repossessed automobiles in these Midwestern states and other states across the United States..

Six people have been killed in the United States since 2006 in incidents involving the repossession of automobiles. Dozens more have been injured, traumatized or arrested. Children have been hauled away by repo men. Rifles, shotguns, pistols, fists and the cars themselves have been used as weapons — against both the target of the repo and the repo agent.

So says a new report by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), a nonprofit advocacy group that concentrates on consumer justice and fair treatment for people “whose poverty renders them powerless to demand accountability from the economic marketplace.”

Poverty and questionable or nonexistent due process often are factors in repo cases, NCLC says. Borrowers who lack access to traditional financing channels may turn to to “buy here, pay here” car dealers.

“Not a single state guarantees automobile owners a day in court before a repossession,” said John Van Alst, a lawyer for NCLC and principal author of the report. “Only a handful of states have even minimal consumer protections such as requiring that repo agents have licenses, bonds or insurance.”

NCLC’s footnoted report chronicles repo cases that have ended in misery for both the subjects of repos and the repo agents.

“What we have now is vigilante repossession run amok,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumer safety and against auto fraud and abuse.

NCLC is calling for states to enact “laws that would require secured lenders to obtain court
orders or at least provide consumers minimal due process prior to seizing automobiles.”

In addition, NCLC says, “states should require that such repossessions, when authorized by courts, be done by sheriffs, police or other law enforcement officials.”

Here are a few of the NCLC’s observations in a March 2010 report titled “Repo Madness”:

  • Self-help repossession makes automobile loans dangerous — especially for low-income
    consumers and others who purchase cars from “buy here pay here” dealer-lenders who promise easy terms but frequently resort to tough tactics to extract payments from borrowers.
  • Self-help repossession stacks the deck in favor of lenders and dealers. They regularly seize cars without having to prove or even substantiate their claims.
  • Because self-help repossession does not require a lender to go to court to show it should be allowed to take a car, a car owner usually faces the daunting prospect of bringing a court action after repossession to show he or she is entitled to get their own car back. Without any procedure to ensure due process prior to repossession, a car owner has no opportunity to assert claims or defenses that might entitle him or her to keep possession of the car. Working families, typically without access to a lawyer, often are unable to initiate a court case on their own to get back a repossessed car. Too often, a family is left without a car and unable to afford a replacement.
  • The current system, unfair to families subject to repossession, also endangers repo agents, other car owners and bystanders. With most repossessions occurring without the involvement of law enforcement, parties often assert their rights in a sort of vigilante justice.

The NCLC report spotlights a number of cases, including the case of a 17-year repo man who pulled over a car targeted for repo by flashing his high beams while driving an ordinary automobile occupied by four teen-aged boys and the youthful repo man’s 20-year-old brother. The target vehicle was a Ford Focus driven by a 25-year-old woman who had purchased the car three months earlier at a “buy here pay here” dealer.

Inside the Focus were the driver, her boyfriend and their five-year-old daughter. The driver, confused and frightened, stopped her car. The youthful repo man approached the car on foot, reached through a window that was partially open to hand the woman paperwork and shift the car into park. The woman drove off, and stopped at a red light. The incident occurred in Massachusetts.

At the red light, another person exited the car driven by the youthful repo man and stood in front of the woman’s Focus. The woman, Sara Bradley, drove off again, and the person standing in front of her “jumped on the hood” and remained there while Bradley drove to the police station.

Bradley’s boyfriend gave this account:  A “boy” ran up to the car and barked, “We’re taking your car, and you’re going to jail.” Bradley, meanwhile, described her encounter with the repo man this way, “It was exactly like a car-jacking,” NCLC reports.

No one was killed during the encounter. Two of the repo men — brothers Michael  and Robert Simeone — were charged criminally in 2007. They were acquitted last year after nearly two years of living under indictment.

Although the repo men were acquitted, they spent months living under a cloud.

Clouds are not uncommon in the repo business.

“Self-help repossession poses a threat to consumers in every state,” NCLC says.

A case of mistaken identity in Texas led to the repossession of the wrong car, which was towed away with two boys — six and 10 — inside, NCLC reports.

“Only after noticing that the engine was running in the repossessed SUV did the repo man discover the children, and return them to their tearful mother,” NCLC says.

Meanwhile, in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., a 36-year-old man was shot to death after a police dispatcher did not send officers because the victim’s 911 call was treated as a report from a man whose car was being repossessed, NCLC reports.

In 2006, the victim was awakened by the sound of his car alarm, NCLC says. He peered outside and observed his car being hooked up to a tow truck. The victim, Raymond Scott Brown, who was not behind on his car payments, called police to report a theft-in-progress.

“[I]nstead of sending help, one of the [police] operators asked twice whether Brown was late on his payments and whether the car was being repossessed instead of stolen,” NCLC reports. “After barely a minute of conversation, the 911 operator told Brown to ‘call back within two hours’ to find out which tow company had taken his car and why.”

Brown and his wife were reluctant to do nothing, and he and his wife hopped into her car and followed the tow truck. The tow truck was stopped at the side of the road, with the car attached, and Brown approached the truck to explain to the driver that a mistake had been made.

“[A] pistol shot struck him in his chest and mortally wounded him,” NCLC says. “As his wife rushed to his side, the tow truck drove off — with Brown’s car still attached.”

Elsewhere, Jimmy Tanks, 67, was shot and killed by a repo agent in the tiny, predominantly
African-American town of Lisman, Ala.

Kevin Alvin Smith was charged with murder. He is claiming the shooting was in self-defense.

Tanks owed “$10,400 on a car with a ‘loan value’ of $7,400,” NCLC reports, citing an affidavit filed in the case.

The shooting occurred in the middle of the night, NCLC says. Tanks was a retired railroad worker who got married only two weeks before his death.

James Lovette, the sheriff of Choctaw County, said in an interview that Tanks, whom he knew, got “killed over a durn car,” NCLC reports.

Read the NCLC report.

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4 Responses to “EDITORIAL: Six Deaths Since 2006 In Car-Repo Incidents; Pistols, Knives, Autos Used As Weapons; Children Hauled Away In Repos”

  1. Should be incidents in headline, not indidents. Typo.

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  2. dirty_bird: Should be incidents in headline, not indidents. Typo.

    Thanks, d_b. Fixed.

    Patrick

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  3. Texas has this quaint concept of “Mischief in the Night” in which one can legitimately use deadly force for seemingly minor offenses, such as someone messing with you car. I would not want to be a Repo man in Texas working at night. Here’s an article from 1994 on the subject:
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ElsxAAAAIBAJ&sjid=UaIFAAAAIBAJ&pg=900,4438180&hl=en

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