Owners of car rental businesses know all too well the scenarios in which a car goes astray, whether it happens when an absent-minded renter forgets to call and extend the contract, a renter knowingly keeps the car past the contract due date, or worse, when a fraudulent customer is out to steal a rental car. In this difficult economic time, it seems the problem is getting worse.
“A lot of people have lost their homes, their cars and their jobs, and most can’t go and buy a car, but everyone who’s got a debit card can rent a car,” says Kevin Carter, owner of Collateral Consultants. “When all that hit, it created a huge demand for our services.”
In addition, career criminals know how to work around an RAC’s “Do Not Rent” list.
“Certain people know how to work the system and are ingenious,” says Keith Short, owner of Asset Retrieval & Investigations LLC (ARI). “They get their driver’s license changed or change their date of birth.”
“These are some of the best con men out there, so when people walk in with fraudulent IDs, they fool managers all the time,” Carter adds.
When a car goes missing, RACs often don’t have the staff or resources to track it down and get it back on the road in a timely manner. That’s where an asset recovery specialist comes in. Referred to as “skip tracers” or “repo men” in the common parlance, this new breed of service works to shorten recovery times using intensive investigative work, new technology tools and a sensitivity toward customer service.
Carter started Dallas-based Collateral Consultants after 15 years in the auto recovery business and 10 years as a police officer. He saw a niche in the car rental business after he learned that a rental car reported stolen is far down on the list of priorities for police.
More than half of his staff is made up of retired and active police officers with extensive training in interviews and interrogations.
“Our law enforcement training gives us a leg up,” Carter says. “We know the legal jargon, and quote laws and statutes so these people know what they’ll face if they don’t return the car.”
At Sunset, Texas-based Asset Retrieval & Investigations LLC (ARI), which started in 1999, about 10% of employees have worked in law enforcement. Short says he makes a point of hiring employees who have not worked in the asset recovery industry before.
“I wanted to train people to do it our way,” he says. “Auto repos don’t always have the best reputation, so we wanted anyone we hired to not bring bad habits into our operation.”
Clients of both asset recovery companies usually contract with them after their own attempts to locate the missing car have failed — usually after two to three weeks. That’s when these experts get down to business, albeit with slightly different methodologies.
Working the Phone
Collateral Consultants breaks its renters three categories: those who make an honest mistake and their situation is resolved with a phone call; those that see how long they can get away with it, and eventually cooperate and return the car; and those who “know what they’re doing and will do it until they can’t get away with it or until they get caught,” Carter says. “This back third we specialize in tracking down.”
Agents at Collateral Consultants start by running the renter through a number of databases to pull up any criminal history. Once they know who they are dealing with, they work the phone, where all the company’s investigative work is done.
Agents are trained to gain information using “trigger words” that deliver a powerful message. “We talk to anybody and everybody that answers the phone,” Carter says. “Most people that we encounter are just floored by the fact that their friend or family member has not returned the car. We find that the availability of help is very good.”
Carter adds that his agents make sure renters know that if they don’t return the car, attorney’s fees and jail time could result.
Carter estimates that about 80% of the company’s assignments result in a forced return, in which the renter returns the car before face-to-face contact is necessary. The rest are physically repossessed through contracted repo services.
Of the physical repossessions, 75% result in the renter handing over the keys. “In two-and-a-half years of business, my agents have never gotten in a physical altercation,” Carter says. He adds that having ex-law enforcement on staff not only results in smoother renter confrontations, but also the ability to get information from local police departments more efficiently. “Cops like talking to cops,” he says.
While 20 days is about average for recovery, because Collateral Consultants works on cases for as long as it takes, some cars come back in a year’s time. Carter managed to recover one rental unit, a Chevy Suburban that had been missing for five years. In total, Collateral Consultants boasted an 84% recovery rate on assignments in December 2012.
Collateral Consultants offers a flat rate or a structured price, and also a volume placement discount. Its pricing structure is designed to fit the budgets of large and small businesses. “Our motto is ‘no metal, no money,’” Carter says. “If the cars don’t go back, my people don’t get paid. If we don’t produce results, then it doesn’t cost anything.”
ARI brings its agent employees into play after the RAC has exhausted its efforts via phone. About 10% of ARI’s business involves forced returns before a physical repo.
“We go out and try to physically get the car,” Short says. “We run background checks, and after doing our research and talking to neighbors, we start working the phone — any way we can establish communications with the renter to get them to turn the car in.”
ARI, which operates in every major U.S. market including plans to expand into New York City this year, is not a forwarding company that many other repossession companies utilize. Short makes it clear that his agents work exclusively for ARI, and that the company specializes only in recovery of rental cars. “We don’t send wrecker drivers into neighborhoods representing your brand,” he says. “All our agents are very professional and will protect your company’s reputation.”
ARI’s method of recovery “does not have the stereotypical repo connotations to it,” Short says. The agents are mindful that they represent a brand and aren’t just performing a collection.
ARI’s agents — most often husband-and-wife teams — use personal vehicles for recoveries and are trained to be firm, but not confrontational. “There’s no yelling and screaming, we’re just forceful and diligent,” Short says.
The rental unit is disabled with a boot or a club before the team knocks on the door. If the renter refuses to give up the keys, the team then calls a wrecker, which happens about 10% of the time. Most vehicles are returned within two weeks.
ARI boasts a 95% overall recovery rate. That other 5% ends up in a chop shop, overseas or retitled. Some of those cars eventually get found.
ARI does not offer a blanket retainer fee. Instead, pricing is according to the nature of the recovery, which breaks down to an investigation fee, and a recovery or forced return fee. The company does not charge if the car comes back before the investigation starts or if the car is never recovered.
Short provides services for corporate clients, franchisees and independent “mom-and-pop stores.”
Bigger, Better Tools
Asset recovery companies have tools available to them that aren’t available to RACs, such as repeat offender databases and access to license plate scanners. ARI’s database of those caught with overdue rentals has grown close to 50,000 people over 15 years.
Collateral Consultants has contracted with private companies that use camera-mounted cars to record vehicles’ license plates with time and location stamps nationwide. “The camera system has taken on a new life and has helped us tremendously,” Carter says. “This has helped in locating a tremendous amount of fraud accounts where we have no good information to work with.”
Text messaging (both delivering and receiving via computer) is another tool. “I can’t tell you the number of cars that I’ve gotten returned via text messages and I’ve never spoken to the individual,” Carter says.
Two Clients’ Views
“We use the services of ARI throughout the country and have been very satisfied with the company’s performance and professionalism,” says Darrell Stripling, corporate security manager for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group.
He adds: “With the help of ARI and its other recovery vendors, Dollar Thrifty is able to quickly recover its assets and get them back on rent to paying customers. In particular, we’ve been very pleased with the ARI website feature providing access to the agent’s investigative notes, which document a rental agency’s efforts to the police should a vehicle have to be reported stolen.”
“I have been extremely satisfied with Collateral Consultants from the first day I started utilizing their services more than two years ago,” says Dawn Gilley, risk manager for Enterprise Holdings. “They have proven themselves to provide consistent, reliable results that meet the often high demands of locating a missing vehicle.”
A Common Scenario
Neither car rental company interviewed offered a typical type of rental or renter that would ultimately lead to a forced return or repossession, as cases involve just about every scenario. However, one company cited expensive SUVs rented on the southern U.S. border as a red flag. Another popular model cited that goes missing is the Cadillac Escalade.