Chris Dunleavy introduces himself like this: 'My name is Chris, and I'm a repo man.'
Dunleavy, 46, is CEO of TCAR Recovery & Remarketing Services in Schenectady, N.Y. His company repossesses 12,000 cars a year, most of them in upstate New York. His Alcoholics Anonymous-style joke reflects the popular image of the repo man - somebody who prefers to remain anonymous.
'We have a difficult time, image-wise,' Dunleavy said.
But repossessions are an inescapable part of auto lending. No lender could survive if borrowers knew they could stop paying and still keep the car.
That is especially true of subprime lending, where up to 20 percent of the loans can end with a repossession.
Even though the percentage of repos runs in the low single digits for prime lenders such as Ford Motor Credit Co. and General Motors Acceptance Corp., those two companies repossessed a combined total of more than 200,000 new and used vehicles last year. (The professional associations for the repossession industry do not keep statistics for the whole nation.)
According to Dunleavy, auto lenders owe the repo man serious attention - and maybe some respect, too.
Lenders are not all sufficiently aware that they can be legally liable for the actions of the repo firms they hire, Dunleavy said.
'In the lenders' mind, when they call us, they are just turning the hound dogs loose. But they should be more familiar with who they're doing business with,' Dunleavy said in a phone interview.
'Lenders should know they can end up in court, side by side with the guys they hired. And to most juries, the bank and the repo man are not very sympathetic figures. Chances are, people are going to feel sorry for the customer,' he said.
The ideal repo man is a locksmith, tow-truck driver, private investigator and psychologist rolled into one, he said.
'My father started the business 40 years ago. I probably saw my first repo when I was 7 or 8 years old. All you needed back then was a bent coat hanger, a bent screwdriver and a wire in case we had to hot-wire the car,' he said, in a June speech to a subprime auto lending conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., sponsored by the National Automotive Finance Association.
Today, repo men have to find the car, disable sophisticated anti-theft systems and possibly deal with potentially violent customers - all without disturbing the peace.
Dunleavy estimated that the customer consents to repossession only about 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent are repossessed 'on sight,' wherever the car is found.
That is not to say lenders really want the car back. They do not, except as a last resort.
'We don't make money by repossessing cars. By repossessing a car, you have guaranteed yourself a loss,' said Jay Huling, retail risk manager for Banc One Credit Co. in Columbus, Ohio.
Repos mean big losses usually because people owe more on the car than the car is worth. The repossession itself is an additional cost. Dunleavy said he charges an average of around $300 per vehicle.
Repossessions meant a loss for Ford Motor Credit Co. of an estimated $5,200 per unit last year. And Ford Credit had an estimated 136,000 repossessions in the United States in 1998. That represents a loss of more than $700 million.
Worldwide, General Motors Acceptance Corp. repossessed 1.5 percent of the new vehicles it financed in 1998, and only 3.4 percent of the used vehicles. That may not sound like much, but that's a total of 85,000 repossessions, according to GMAC's annual report.
Those numbers, while lower than a couple of years ago, are too big to be ignored.
Said Dunleavy: 'Lenders have to know, their business is on the line every time they send us out.'