TAMPA — Jason Giddens throws his 5-ton Ford F-550 "snatch truck" into reverse and rumbles down the street near Chamberlain High. His target, spotted an hour earlier, is still there, under the oaks.
A group of adults and children are gathered on the porch and at the curb. "S---. This is the last thing I wanted," Giddens grumbles. "We'll know in the first 10 seconds if there's going to be trouble."
Without leaving the cab, Giddens lowers the tow bar and secures his catch: a smaller Ford pickup. Now there are more than a dozen people milling around the trucks.
"It's the repo man," someone yells from the porch. Giddens springs from the cab, just as Jorge Palencia, the owner of the suddenly disabled pickup, emerges from the house.
• • •
Delinquencies in dealer-arranged auto and truck loans in the United States reached a record high of 3.13 percent in the final quarter of last year. And when those loans go unpaid for several months, and the owner has not contacted the lender, the vehicles are usually repossessed.
Analysts predict vehicle repossessions this year will rise as much as 15 percent to about 1.6-million cases nationwide. That's on top of a 10 percent increase last year — yet another sign of the growing economic stress on consumers.
And Florida is one of the states where the trend is most obvious. Although the state doesn't track the number of vehicle repossessions, the number of people applying for licenses to either become a recovery agent or to start a recovery business has risen dramatically. Florida now has 390 interns seeking to become "recovery agents," the most the state has ever had.
One of those agents is Jason Giddens.
He has a skeleton tattoo on his left arm, an earring in each ear and a knack for finding things. Things people sometimes go to great lengths to hide.
Giddens, 35, is the co-owner of S & G Towing & Recovery, one of a growing number of companies that prowl the streets of Tampa Bay looking for someone else's vehicle. To get his license, Giddens had to undergo a background check, take a 40-hour course and serve an internship.
For about $325, he'll bring in a car. By the book. He's also recovered a 43-foot motor home, a 30-foot powerboat from the owner's dock, and a motorcycle from a member of a biker gang.
If nothing else, Giddens is careful. When a lender sends him a repossession assignment, he crosschecks it to make sure it's correct, and then heads off into the night. He rarely makes a pickup during the day.
Recovery agents are not allowed to carry weapons. But Giddens has never been shot at, and at 5 feet 7 and 285 pounds, he rarely gets confronted. Still, after every job, he calls his wife to let her know he's okay.
He knows people will often offer to pay him what is owed on the car. (He refuses.) He knows Ford Explorers and Expeditions are repossessed more than most other models, because there are so many of them.
And he knows that for $50, he can usually get a neighbor to call him when a car he's hunting pulls in.
• • •
Keith Leggett, senior economist with the American Bankers Association, said reasons for the spike in repossessions include the economic slowdown, a shrinking job market and rising fuel costs. But generally, people are borrowing more money and taking longer to pay off the loan, all for cars that steadily decrease in value.
Through the first three months of this year, about a quarter of car owners who traded in their vehicle for a new one found themselves "upside down." They owed more on their old car than it was worth.
"Then all you have to have is some kind of event — a job loss, a health issue — and that would trigger a rise in delinquencies," Leggett said, adding that some buyers don't intend to make more than a few payments.
"But most people do," he said. "The problem is that people don't factor in other forces like fuel costs, insurance, maintenance and upkeep.
"They look at the price and say, 'I can make this payment.' When they don't, the lender wants its merchandise back."
• • •
Palencia, the owner of the repossessed Ford pickup, asks Giddens if it's okay to remove his belongings from the truck. Giddens nods, and out come the CDs, the letters, the lumber and the Virgin Mary picture hanging from the rear-view mirror.
"I always give people the chance to get their things," Giddens said. If no one claims the possessions after 45 days, they belong to the repo man. Giddens sees a lot of child car seats, strollers and clothes. He gives car seats and strollers to Goodwill, and the clothes go to the homeless people who watch over his lot.
Palencia, 35, wants to know how to get his truck back.
"It's up to the dealership," Giddens said. "Not us."
"It's the only vehicle I have," Palencia said, standing in the street surrounded by his family. "I only missed one month."
Giddens didn't linger to hear the rest. He dropped off the Ford at his lot, and took off again, this time to Clearwater for a 1999 Chrysler 300.
After making payments for more than a year, the owner still owed close to $3,000 on a car that was worth about $2,500.
"You'd think they'd learn," Giddens said. "They never do."
Tom Zucco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8247.