Just before 2 a.m. on a quiet residential street in Parkville, one man's problems - missed car payments, default notice, threat of repossession - were about to boost another's bottom line.
Tony Atkins deftly backed his Midnight Express-brand towing rig under a Chevy Impala. With a glance up at a row of darkened homes, Atkins pulled away, the car's emergency brake squeaking behind his rumbling truck. The capture took all of five seconds.
"Hey, there's one," Atkins said, keeping score early on this recent frigid morning. The dusty car now dangled behind his truck like a hooked marlin, bound for his storage lot. He was just getting started: "Let's go get three or four more."
Atkins calls himself a collateral recovery agent. Most people would say he's a repo man. Whatever the label, the bad economy is good for him and his fellow collectors. Lenders hire tow companies to prowl the streets and alleys in search of vehicles whose owners are behind on their payments. Each repossession can bring in $400 or so, plus daily storage fees.
These days there's a lot of work to go around.
"The total number of repos continues to rise," said Tom Webb, chief economist for Manheim, the country's largest vehicle auctioneer. Last year, there were 1.67 million auto repossessions nationwide, he said, up 12 percent from 2007.
The trend is similar in Maryland. Last year, the Motor Vehicle Administration issued 16,874 "certificates of repossession" by mail and at its dealer window in Glen Burnie - a 21 percent increase over 2007. Those certificates represent the bulk issued statewide by the MVA.
Atkins says his business has boomed since shortly after he launched Chesapeake Bay Recovery a year ago. Initially, he hauled 40 cars and trucks per month. Since the economy tanked, his volume has nearly doubled, keeping him on the go.
"Seven nights a week since probably the end of September," he said. "It's a good problem to have. Fortunate for me, unfortunate for others."
Atkins is a trim, compact 50-year-old. At night he wears black for camouflage. When he gets out of his truck to check a vehicle identification number, he strides with military briskness and carries a long metal flashlight that could serve as a club if the need arose.
"No confrontations" could be his mantra. His goal is to get the car or SUV without seeing the owner. His scariest encounter came five years ago while working for another firm. He was taking a car from a Southeast Washington backyard when the irate owner stormed out, brandishing a police-style baton.
Atkins locked the door of his truck and called 911. The police came and the danger passed. Atkins says he still towed that car. "I had it on the hook. If it's on the hook, it's going with me."
To minimize risks, he starts after midnight and tries to wrap up by 5 a.m., before most people wake up. He spends days doing research, including workplace surveillance, and he might knock on doors in better neighborhoods to reclaim a car.
"We're hated worse than the tax man," he acknowledged, and he can understand people's ire when he hauls away a car that someone needs in order to get to work or take a child to school. Yet, he has limited sympathy for people who haven't made car payments in months.
Lenders usually wait 60 days before initiating a repossession, though Maryland law allows a vehicle to be taken if a borrower is one day late on a payment. The person has to be notified by mail at various points in the process.
The bulk of consumer complaints relates to the lenders rather than those they hire to repossess the vehicles, according to the state. Auto owners often contend that a lender failed to explain steps needed to get a vehicle or its contents back, said Dori Berman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
The number of complaints has risen. In fiscal year 2008, which ended June 30, there were 98 complaints. With this fiscal year barely half over, 60 have been filed. None were filed against Atkins, according to the department.
"You have to have respect for these people, especially in bad times," Atkins said, using the term dignity to explain his approach when someone finds that he is taking a car. "If you do get caught, you have to know how to talk to them. You can't just go saying, 'I'm repossessing your car.' I never say repossess, always say impound. It just seems like a little bit of an easier word."
Atkins says that his job can be thrilling: "It's exciting for me to steal a car and not get in trouble for it. It's an adrenaline rush, and I'd be lying if I said any different."
To begin his recent hunt, Atkins pulled into an eerily empty parking lot in Glen Burnie just past midnight. With his F-450 Super Duty truck idling, he flipped through paperwork for nine new cases scattered around Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
His first stop was at a house in Dundalk. He typed the address into his global positioning system and headed for the Key Bridge. His target: a 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt.
For Atkins, being a repo man is a third career. He worked 20 years at the Sparrows Point Shipyard as a tower crane operator and first-class rigger for Bethlehem Steel Corp. He left to pursue a passion for cooking by opening a catering business. A friend of his had a repossession outfit, and during the quiet winter months Atkins would help out.
A decade ago he went full time as a repo man, more recently setting out on his own. He has a staff of eight, including part-timers, and a state-issued collection agency license.
From his Kent Island base, he handles jobs within an 80-mile radius for two dozen banks. On this night, a second crew was operating in the Washington suburbs.
Pulling up at the address for the Cobalt, Atkins lowered his tow rig with a hydraulic groan. Always be ready, he explained. The car was indeed there, and he walked over to shine his light on its ID number, or VIN, to make sure.
But there was a problem. The owner had parked it behind a locked gate. "We're leaving," Atkins grumbled, climbing back in his truck. "They know we're coming. It's a chained fence. ... It's against the law to break that chain."
Atkins said he could disable the car - by putting a Club on the steering wheel, say - and get a repo fee, but only if the owner subsequently paid what he or she owed.
By contrast, towing is money in the bank, money Atkins needs to pay a hefty insurance premium and fuel bills, among other expenses. Plus, towing lets him pick up a storage fee; he said he charges about half of the $40 or $50 per day that some companies levy.
"I'm going to get the car anyway," he said, "just not right now."
From there he drove to Middle River. There was no sign of the Ford Expedition he sought. He cruised nearby streets, because owners sometimes hide cars.
Then it was on to an address off Belair Road, just inside the city line. Again, no luck: The 2005 Toyota Tundra in question was nowhere to be found.
His next destination was Parkville, and as he rounded a corner he spied his dirt-covered quarry, a 2003 Impala, parallel-parked. Before hitching the car, he checked the vehicle identification number. Seconds later he was rolling with it. After a few blocks, he stopped to break into the car, whose rear seats were filled with boxes, to disengage its parking brake.
But he had trouble getting a metal hook to unlock the door. Soon his bare hands were freezing. Worried that the owner might realize what happened and give chase, Atkins drove a half-mile farther to a church parking lot where the light was better.
"If they come after us now, God help 'em," he joked. No one came. Wearing gloves, he got into the car and released the brake.
Then he called Baltimore County police to report a repossession. If the owner thought the car had been stolen, the police could explain otherwise.
The Impala would stay at Atkins' Kent Island lot for the time being. If the owner fails to pay up in 15 days, it could be auctioned. But resale values have dipped along with the economy. And if an auction price does not cover the balance on a loan, the lender can sue the car owner for repayment.
For several more hours, Atkins worked through the cold night. He came up empty a few more times. He located a pickup truck in Annapolis, only to find that it was hemmed in behind a car, perhaps on purpose. He cannot legally move a car to reach one he wants.
By dawn, Atkins had repossessed only the Impala. But later that morning he found the pickup truck free for the towing, plus a second one at that address that was on his list. He got both. And inside of a few days, he had hauled away both the Expedition and, as promised, that 2008 Cobalt.