How Repo Trucks Work

Repo men use repo trucks, like this self-loading wrecker, that can hookup a car and drive off in about 10 seconds. See more truck pictures.
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­People who lease cars, motorcycles or boats, or even those who purchase these vehicles with monthly payments, are sometimes surpri­sed to find that the bank will reclaim the vehicle if the bills aren't paid. Then again, some people are not surprised, as they knowingly dodge phone calls from banks and creditors in an effort to avoid making monthly payments. Of course, this behavior makes the task of finding and retrieving these vehicles that much more difficult. The repossession agent, usually known as a repo man, has the often difficult job of locating and recovering these vehicles.

­­­How do you take away someone's car when they don't want you to? The simplest way is to do it quickly and without them even knowing you were there -- with the exception of the suddenly missing car. The key to a smooth repo job is using the proper equipment at the right time. Believe it or not, an experienced repo man (or woman) can approach the vehicle, hook the towing apparatus to the car and drive off in about 10 seconds -- all without ever leaving the truck's cab. Sounds pretty sneaky, doesn't it? Most of the time, repo men have to be covert -- it's an important part of the job -- so repo equipment must be equally stealthy. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to determine that a truck is used for repossessions, because the towing gear can be stowed completely out of view.


Repossession agents have perfected these skills and technologies, mainly because the repo business is a dangerous business. There's a certain amount of risk involved when you're taking away someone's beloved car, so it pays to be quick and stealthy.

Read the next page to learn about some of the equipment repo men use to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible.


Easy Towing

The hydraulic-powered stinger arm incorporates wheel cradles that support the tires from both sides.
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Tow trucks have been around for nearly as long as there have been cars on the road. Of course, over the decades, the methods for hauling away damaged or repossessed vehicles have evolved. Early towing systems required chains or hooks that wrapped around an axle or a frame rail. Some tow truck operators still use this technique in certain conditions. The method is very secure, but it takes a fair amount of time and effort to get the vehicle into position and it can also scratch or damage the vehicle being towed.

Tire- or wheel-lift devices avoid damaging the vehicle because they only touch the tires. Brackets are fitted in front of and behind the drive wheels of the vehicle and then secured in place by steel pins. When the tow truck mechanism lifts the vehicle, the wheels are cradled between the brackets. This method of towing requires the driver to get out of the truck to position the brackets in place and insert the pins, but a skilled operator can actually do this in about 30 seconds.


The latest evolution in tow truck technology is the integrated lift, also known as a self-loading wrecker. This is a wheel-lift system that can be controlled from inside the truck and deployed with hydraulic power. As the truck backs up to the target vehicle, a long arm, called a stinger, extends out along the pavement behind the truck. The leading edge of the wheel cradles contact the tires as the other side of the cradle slides under the vehicle, just past the tire. The brackets can then be closed via hydraulics, cradling the tires on both sides. The tow boom is lifted, the drive wheels come off the ground and the tow truck can pull away.

It would be difficult for a repo man to sneak up on someone in a huge flatbed truck like this.
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Sometimes, a different solution is required to move a vehicle. A flatbed truck uses an electric cable winch to pull cars up onto the bed. The flatbed can be hydraulically inclined or even turned to the side, then placed back into a level position for driving. This method is used if a car is too damaged or heavy for a standard tow truck, or if the vehicle has four-wheel or all-wheel-drive. If you were to tow a car with the drive wheels rolling, the transmission would likely suffer severe damage as a result. Using a flatbed truck for repo work generally isn't a good idea as flatbeds aren't especially stealthy. It takes time to raise the bed, connect the winch, and even then, the truck driver can't drive off until the car is secured. Flatbed trucks are also pretty large -- so it's really tough to sneak up on someone with one.

We usually think of tow trucks as something we need when our car breaks down. Why would a tow truck driver sneak up on someone and tow away their car? We'll examine the repo business on the next page.


The Repo Business

It's the repo man's job to find and retrieve vehicles when the owner stops making payments.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

When someone buys a new car, truck or boat, they usually don't have the cash to pay for the whole thing all at once. Often, they'll finance the purchase -- work out a deal with a bank or other lender to borrow enough money to make the purchase -- then make monthly payments and pay interest. Until the final payment is made, the lender will hold a lien against the vehicle. The lien is a legal concept which gives the lender the right to take possession of the vehicle if certain conditions aren't met, such as making the monthly payments.

If the borrower starts falling behind on a loan, the lender will make an effort to contact the person and resolve the issue, possibly with an alternate payment plan. If the loan reaches a certain state of delinquency, usually between 30 and 90 days past due, the lender realizes they're probably not going to make any more money on the deal. Their only choice is to take possession of the vehicle and sell it at an auction. This is a last resort because the vehicle is now used, the value has gone down and the repossession itself costs money.


That's where the repo man comes in. Lenders hire repo men to find and retrieve these vehicles. The repo man might earn a set fee per repo, though the fee may vary based on the vehicle being recovered, the location and the amount of work required to find it. People who stop paying their car loans don't always wait at home for the repo man to show up. Often they move without notifying the lender of the change of address, hoping to elude their debts. This is known as a "skip," and the job of tracking them down, known as skip tracing, falls to the repo man as well. A repo man can probably make as much as a few hundred dollars per recovery, although for larger jobs, such as boats or heavy equipment, the cost may be based on the weight of the item being repossessed.

It's possible to make a living by getting a few hundred bucks for a quick stealth tow, but repossession agents face many challenges. For one thing, repossession is not as simple as finding a car and towing it away. In the United States, each state has laws that cover repossession practices. There are licensing requirements and insurance costs to deal with. If a repo agent works in multiple states, he or she will have to navigate the tangled web of statutes in each state.

Repossessed boats sit in the marina of National Liquidators in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The repo agent makes certain the client has a lien against the vehicle, giving them the right to take possession. Once the repo man locates the vehicle, he or she checks the vehicle identification number, or VIN, to be absolutely sure it's the correct car or truck.

Once the repo is complete, the vehicle must be towed somewhere secure. Most towing companies have their own storage lots where they can bring cars, trucks, motorcycles or even boats, but sometimes they can deliver the vehicle directly to the client. The repo man also has to notify the local police that repossession took place. That way, if the former owner calls the police to report a stolen vehicle, the police can explain what happened.

Legal hassles are one thing, but we haven't even started talking about the dangers a repo man faces on the job. On the next page, we'll find out why repo men need to be so stealthy.


Safety and Stealth

This ordinary looking pickup truck is really a heavy-duty stealth repo truck.
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There are some people who genuinely run into financial problems and fail to make car payments, and while an owner may be upset when their car is repossessed, they don't get violent about it. But a certain percentage of people who have evaded their loan payment responsibilities are not exactly upstanding citizens. A search of Internet news sites will bring up dozens of stories about repo men whose trucks are damaged or who are themselves assaulted, injured and sometimes even murdered by irate car owners. In the United States, one or two repo men are killed each year while on the job. It's easy to see why they want to make a repo as quickly as possible, and avoid getting out of the tow truck if they can.

In some states, making a clean, quiet repo isn't just a safety matter, it's a legal necessity. Some state laws require that all repos happen without creating a "breach of the peace." That means that if the owner notices the repo in progress and comes out of the house yelling and screaming, the repo agent can't legally repossess the car. Of course, it's in the repo man's best interest to avoid a scene like this, but how?


The first type of stealth towing system is a basic tow truck equipped with an automated hookup system, such as the stinger wheel-lift system we described earlier. These repos rely more on speed than stealth. The repo agent will usually park the truck out of sight while he or she checks the VIN to determine if the vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive. When all is ready, the agent approaches the vehicle with the tow truck and deploys the stinger, controlling it with a hydraulic control box inside the truck's cab. If the car is parallel parked, the stinger can be turned sideways and slid into position from the side. The entire operation can be completed in roughly 10 seconds.

An even craftier method of vehicle repossession involves a truck that's more than it appears to be. A true stealth repo truck looks like an ordinary pickup truck. It's usually a heavy-duty truck with a powerful diesel engine and dual rear wheels, but it doesn't appear to be a towing vehicle in any way. In stealth mode, the repo man can scout the target vehicle, check the VIN and determine the whereabouts of the owner without drawing unwanted attention. When it's time to tow the target vehicle, the stealth truck undergoes a remarkable transformation.

The stinger arm on this stealth repo truck folds up to look like a trailer hitch. It's actually part of the telescoping towing apparatus mounted beneath the truck.
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One version of a stealth repo truck has a towing mechanism hidden in the enclosed bed of the pickup. The mechanism unfolds under hydraulic power with the push of a button. The stinger then extends under the target car and functions just like a regular tow truck. When the repo is complete and the car is stored safely in a secure lot, the towing mechanism folds back into the bed, out of sight.

Another stealth repo truck design stows the stinger beneath the truck. In stealth mode, the tire cradles are folded up and appear to be some kind of straight metal attachment parallel to the truck's rear bumper. The folded metal cradles look like some kind of trailer hitch assembly -- not at all like any kind of towing apparatus. When it goes into action, the stinger telescopes out from beneath the truck, unfolds and then functions like a regular tow truck. A typical stealth repo truck can tow a vehicle weighing up to 7,000 pounds (3,175 kg), which means you can stealth repo all cars and all but the heaviest of pickup trucks.

A stealth lifter can be installed on a typical pickup truck; however, the truck is then subjected to some serious stress as it lifts and tows. For that reason, most manufacturers recommend using a heavy-duty pickup and adding frame stiffeners. For example, it's suggested that vehicles with a gross weight of less than 15,000 pounds (6,804 kg) use frame reinforcements before the stealth lifter is installed [source: Dynamic Equipment and Manufacturing].

That stealth gear doesn't come cheap -- a full system, including frame stiffening and suspension modifications, will cost about $15,000 installed. That doesn't include the price of the truck itself. A 2008 Ford F-350 with a stealth system already installed will cost just over $55,000 [source: East Coast Truck and Trailer Sales].

To find out more about repossession equipment, hydraulics and other related topics, follow the links on the next page. They'll provide you with a lot more information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Condor Motorcycle Products. "Self Loader."
  • Cramer, Maria. "Repo men, interrupted: Brothers arrested after allegedly taking their job too far." Boston Globe. May 23, 2007.
  • Dynamic Equipment and Manufacturing. "Stealth Brochure."
  • Lambert, Andy. "A Condensed History of Vehicle Recovery in the UK."
  • Meeks, Dan. "I Want To Be a Repoman…." Sept. 14, 2007.
  • Meeks, Dan. "Private Party Repossessions." Sept. 14, 2007.
  • Verhovek, Sam Howe. "In Killing of Repo Man, Law Shields the Killer." New York Times. March 8, 1994. 5750C0A962958260
  • West Volusia News Journal. "Man charged with assault after confronting repo man." July 10, 2008. wvlWEST01071008.htm