Grand Theft Auto: The Life of a Utah Repo Man
February 11th, 2009
Business is booming for the Utah repossession industry
by Jacob Hodgen
TruTV has recently aired a new show entitled Operation: Repo where moody redneck misfits get into a continuous series of fights with the people they try to repossess vehicles from. If you are fan of trashy television, it's fantastic, since it makes it look more like the video game Grand Theft Auto than a legitimate industry. In the one--alright, it was two--episodes I watched, I saw them mace teenage girls, flip cars over, reduce businessmen to tears, and get chased around by a rake-wielding farmer. It's all fake, but Jerry Springer would be proud. I wondered, was it really this exciting? Is this really what the repossession industry is like? I set out to find out.
. . .
It is dark, and I pull up next to a jet black Dodge pickup in an otherwise deserted mall parking lot. Inside the truck's cabin is a mounted laptop indicating a contract to pick up a car. There is a bounty on the vehicle, and I count three separate GPS systems now tracking a Spanish Fork address. Though it does not look like a tow truck from the outside, this souped-up one ton has a retractable "sneaker hitch" hidden in the undercarriage.
I will be riding along with one of the few local business that is thriving during the current financial crisis. I jump in with Tom and Rich Russon from the Lehi-based Quality Towing company, and tonight we are going to repossess cars.
While the rest of the country struggles financially to keep its head above water, Quality Towing is overwhelmed with work. Tom Russon is the owner, and he says he frequently has to work 16 hours days to the meet the ever increasing the demand for repossessions. His wife, Vaniece, also provides countless hours in the office and in the field. Their company accepts contracts from banks and car dealerships to bring back cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and tractors from all over the state. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Because repossession is costly and time-consuming, banks almost never want to repossess vehicles, and will only ever initiate it as an absolute last resort. Rich tells me that, "If you've lost your job or something, the banks just want to know. Most of the ones we end up with are because the banks can't reach the customers." However, most people don't realize this and all too often will fail to communicate with their lending institution who then has little choice but to try and repossess the vehicle.
Our first "repo" leads us to a flashy new suburb in Spanish Fork. We are looking a for car with six months of delinquent payments. No luck. We then head to West Jordan to an apartment complex. There is no car there, either. We then drive down to Salt Lake to another apartment complex--strike three. I begin to wonder how Quality Towing stays in business. We now drive back up to Lehi to a duplex in search of a white sedan.
This time we find it, but there's a problem: apparently the people knew we were coming, and they have barricaded the vehicle in with another truck. Since repo crews are not allowed to touch vehicles other than the one they have a contract for, they will not be able to take this one tonight. However, Tom points out that even though the owners think they're smart and may have won this battle, now that he has found the vehicle, a giant steel boot will ensure that he gets the car when they try to go to work tomorrow.
in behind the red truck, but no one escapes "the boot."
Our last contract for the night is back in Provo. We roll up to a tiny rambler, and sitting outside is our prize: a shiny 2007 Dodge Durango. Tom knocks on the door and a man answers. He looks relieved and hands Tom the keys. Rich says he wishes that they were all this easy and philosophizes over the nature of man and money: "What makes one person hide it and another give it up voluntarily?" Tom replies quickly, "Character."
The very nature of the repossession industry provides a peculiar ethical dilemma--one that Tom and Rich are quick to acknowledge. On the one hand, their job requires them to inflict a great deal of pain on a large number of people. However, without the option to repossess, lenders would suffer continuous, catastrophic losses and would inevitably go out of business. They remind me that keeping a vehicle that you don't pay for is a form of theft; as long as people refuse to pay for the things they buy on credit, the repossession industry must exist.
But this doesn't mean they are heartless thugs feasting on the misery of their labors. Tom tells me that he had a truck repossessed from him once when he was younger, and the experience was horrible. "The guy showed up on my doorstep carrying a baseball bat. I don't want to be like him. We actually care about the people. We're not trying to be vindictive." Rich agrees with brother, "It is much easier to deal with people on a professional level."
As we drive, they talk about the heavy emotional toll their work often takes on them. Though Tom is a veteran of Desert Storm, and looks tough enough to deter all but the most desperate clients, his exterior belies the heart of someone who feels deeply for the people he encounters. "We're sensitive guys," he says.
He tells me the story of one particularly heart-wrenching contract they had during the holiday season. The job was to repo a van from a family in Provo. As he pulls up to the house, he finds the vehicle is in the driveway; it is unlocked and the keys are still in the ignition. As he approaches, the startled owner walks out and confronts him. Tom quickly grabs the keys and prepares to drive off, but the confused owner just asks what he is doing. "I explained to her why I was there, and she started balling: all their Christmas presents were in the back of the car. The husband had gotten laid off two days before, and they were in really bad shape." Though it would have been well within his rights to just drive away, Tom decides to stay and help the family gather their possessions. "I remember standing there watching her and her kids unloading the Christmas presents. There were tears streaming down my face. I was the one taking their van away from them. I amost quit after that."
Rich tells me that they have taken hundreds of vehicles with car seats, and they always go back to drop them off, once the vehicle is safely in their possession. Though their lives are thankfully not as exciting as Operation: Repo, they say that there have been times when they were punched, kicked, slapped, and had guns drawn on them, but they take it all in stride. "Nine times out of ten it will be a swing and miss," and they pass it off as just part of the job. Though they both have concealed weapon permits, they tell me that getting into fights or standoffs is that last thing that they ever want. "If the police come out, sometimes they don't know who called them, and we can end up in handcuffs."
As they head back to drop me off after a long night's work, I finally pose the question I have been gearing up all night to ask: "So, do you let your kids play Grand Theft Auto?" They both laugh and Rich tells me, "It's their favorite game."
Grand theft auto indeed.
The moral of this story is clear: if you decide to skip the next six or so months of your car payment without contacting your lender, consider yourself yourself lucky if these guys show up. Your ride is about to get jacked by the two nicest car thieves in the state.