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Confessions of a Repo Man

Repossessing Cars Leads to a Hit Reality Show


  • Lou Pizarro

    Lou Pizarro

    Lou Pizarro took his knowledge of the repo business and turned it into a hit TV show, Operation Repo on Tru TV. | March 18, 2010

3 Photos

"I treat people with respect. I don't cross the line until they cross the line. And you can't show any fear. The second you show fear, then you're the prey, and they're the predator. And you don't want that." — Lou Pizzaro, repo man

I've been shot at, slapped, spit on. I've been in plenty of fights. I've been pepper-sprayed. Once I was run over by a guy trying to escape with his car. I mean, you name it and I've been through it. But it's all part of my job: I'm a repo man. And if you get behind in your car payments, I'm the guy the bank is gonna send to come get your car.

It's really kind of crazy what people do for their cars. I guess it's a psychological thing: You want to keep up with the Joneses and impress the ladies. People buy all kinds of fancy speakers and rims for their car — I've seen cars with 15-, 20,000-dollar sound systems on them — then they don't make payments on the car itself!

How I Got Into Repo-ing

I'm 41, I had seven brothers and sisters, and our mom was the only parent around. We lived in the projects in the Bronx, and I was fighting all the time. We even fought for government cheese, if you can believe that. Eventually we moved to the San Fernando Valley (in Southern California).

My first job was with Continental Airlines. Then I joined the Marines, which was the best thing I've done in my life. After that, I was down in Florida and I ran into a gentleman in a gas station who told me he was a repo man. He made it sound like stealing cars, but he had a license and the police were on our side. I said, "Man, I'd love to do repos, too." He offered me a job on the spot. He picked me up exactly at midnight, and I went repossessing with him. After we finished, he told me, "Wow, you're a natural at this. Weren't you scared?"

A lot of the skills I use as a repo man are things I picked up growing up the way I did. You have to be very savvy, very street smart. I also learned a lot from when I worked for the airlines. When I have to back up with a car I'm towing, or fit through a tight space, I think back to when I was pulling $100 million 747s.

How the Repo Process Works

Banks, credit agencies, finance companies or even private parties will send repo notices to us, via fax or e-mail. We go pick up the car and take it to our shop. Whatever you put on the car legally belongs to whomever owns the car, so when we repossess a car with fancy rims and speakers, we keep everything on it. We also do a report on the owner's personal property that they may have left in the car. They have 60 days to pick up that property. In many cases, we'll just give the personal property back, especially if it's a baby seat or medicine people may need to survive.

After the car is in our control, the registered owner (RO) has 15 days to make good on the account and redeem their car, though banks sometimes give a 25-day extension. If the ROs can't make the payments, we deliver it to an auction. The bank sells it for as much as they can get, and holds the ROs liable for whatever is left on the money they owe that isn't covered by the auction.

We're also hired to do "skip tracing" — that's actually finding the car. When people get behind in the payments, they move the car around, try to hide it, so we have to find it before we can grab it. We get the information from the credit application and that has the owner's address and phone numbers. There's a 50-50 chance the car will be at the owner's address. If not, we call around to all the numbers associated with that car; usually it turns out that the owner has moved, but sometimes the car has been in an accident.

If you get behind in your payments, don't try to hide the car. The smartest thing you can do is call the loan company. They know these are hard times, and they will usually work with you to try to keep you in the car. If they send the car for repossession, we'll find it and then you'll be out a whole lot more money. (For other tips on how to avoid repossession and what to do if your car is repossessed, please see "Stay One Step Ahead of the Repo Man.")

I like doing repos on the larger equipment: tractors, planes, commercial stuff. Recently, I picked up three hot air balloons. Repos of those things have gone up, just like everything else. The biggest thing I've ever repossessed was a 657E land mover, a giant piece of construction equipment with two engines. The most expensive thing I've taken in was a Citation, a $7 million jet. But I've repossessed anything you can think of. I've even done entire companies. You get a court order, show up at the company's office with the sheriff and then you take everything there. It's kind of sad.

I Treat All People With Respect

When I'm repossessing I always begin by treating people with respect. I don't cross the line until they cross the line. But when people start threatening me, I have to be firm. And you can't show any fear. Here in L.A. County, the second you show anybody fear, you're the prey, and they're the predator. And you don't want that. Without being disrespectful, you have to show them that you're a firm guy, you're going to hold your ground. Lots of times I say, "Hey, you should have been responsible and made your payments."

Some people don't see it that way. They see me as the enemy. But they're really their own worst enemy. All we're doing is providing a service for the bank. If there were no repo men, you wouldn't be able to afford the finance rates for a car — interest rates would be 40, 50 percent, and the economy would be way worse than it is, even now.

The Stories People Tell

Everyone has a story about why they shouldn't have their car repossessed. Some people are truthful, but I can see right through you if you're BS-ing me.

Once, I was picking up a car and the woman who owned it came out all upset. She started tearing up and told me she had to take her mother to the hospital since she had gangrene on her leg. I thought she was lying. But then the door opened, and her mom came out in shorts with a leg that looked terrible. Her story was true. I felt so bad! That assignment really stuck with me. Later, that woman got back to the finance company, and while they were happy to hear from her, they also stopped sending me work 'cause I did the humane thing. That's OK. It happens.

If I'm doing a repo on a woman's car, she can tell right away that I'm a gentleman. So she'll try to get away with pushing me or insulting me. My assistant Matt, he's a really big guy, and women will often try to provoke him, hoping he'll do something that they can sue him for. One woman called the police on us, and told them that Matt had tried to fondle her. But since we had the incident on tape, the police ended up charging her for filing a false report. When people are desperate, they do desperate things.

Operation Repo the TV Show

Even though I see people at their worst, I don't have a bad view of humankind. I believe everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a chance. Things happen, man. I've been there, too. I'm not gonna judge you, no way. I could be right underneath you tomorrow, and I'd have to work twice as hard to get out. That's how it's always been; when I'm slapped down, I come up with another idea and I just work at it. Like the way that my show, Operation Repo came about.

I got a call from Channel 52 (a Spanish language television station) and they wanted to do a story about a day in the life of a repo man. After it was on, people kept coming up to me and saying, "Hey, you're that repo guy." It got me thinking about the possibilities. So I got some guys from my church, and we shot a bunch of footage. And it led to Operation Repo on Tru TV.

I gotta tell you, my repossession days are numbered, because right now, I'm moving on to something else. My goal is to direct more movies. I directed my first feature film, Operation Repo: The Movie last year, and I'm working on another one.

I'm really jazzed that I have all these hit shows. But I also hope they help people see that repossession agents aren't the bad guys. We're just part of a system. The problem is, we're the last part in the process. In this economy, we're the guy who takes your car. But I always just have to tell people, "You gotta do your part. You gotta be responsible and make your payments." Then you're never gonna see us.

Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.

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