Highway Robbery: Auto Repossession in Malaysia

Wednesday was turning out to be a pretty good day: I had a very smooth, efficient visit to Immigration in Shah Alam; I got paid; I got an awesome, free lunch, not to mention great company and conversation. Yes, it was shaping up to be a pretty good day. I did some banking, paid some bills, and was on my way back to Kajang when the car started to feel sluggish, heavy. Then, as I was climbing a hill, the car died. Just like that. Running one moment, then suddenly…silence and engine lights. I coasted to the side of the road, next to the Petronas station in Taman Len Sen, Cheras. I called Leen, who called a relative who lives nearby, who called a mechanic near her place. Then I spent about three hours sitting on the side of the road, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Leen and I spoke several times on the phone. It was almost time for her to punch out for the day, so we planned to meet at Ibu’s cousin’s place in Bandar Tun Hussein Onn. That’s where Al hangs out while we’re at work. At six, she left Masterskill College with her assistant, H, who’s been staying with us. H drives Leen to work every morning; they drop Al off on the way and pick him up on the way home. The plan for Wednesday was pretty much the same, except this time they were going to wait for me at Ibu’s cousin’s place.

Major change of plans

Sometime after six I was still sitting there on the side of the road watching the mechanic perform battlefield surgery on my poor old Wira, when suddenly Leen called me, all in a panic. She and H couldn’t meet me at Ibu’s cousin’s place, because someone had just taken H’s car right out from under them. In fact, the perpetrator was still there; Leen alternated between breathlessly filling me in and ruthlessly cursing the villain. Were they being carjacked? Yes, but no. The car was being repossessed. But actually, as far as I’m concerned, it was a carjacking.

Here’s the story as they told it to me: They had just left Masterskill and were driving along the road to Batu 9 Cheras when the car in front of them suddenly began to swerve left and right. H honked at the driver, who would put on a turn signal but then swerve in the opposite direction. If that sounds like a dangerous thing to do on a busy road, what happened next was even worse: the driver swerved in front of H in such a way that she had no choice but to go off the road, onto the strip of dirt and rocks that passes for a shoulder. Then the driver of the other car got out and hustled over to H’s car. He banged on her window, waving a piece of paper at her, saying it was a letter from the bank and that he was there to repossess her car.

I really don’t know the details, but apparently H had missed the maximum number of payments one can miss in a row before repossession takes place. The bank had every right to repossess the car. H said she doesn’t recall getting any notification to that effect, but her family recently moved, and she figures the letters went to the old address. Whatever the case, she had signed an agreement with the bank, and not making her payments meant she had to suffer the consequences.

But did she have to suffer through what she was enduring on the side of the road Wednesday evening? When she put her window down to argue with the man, he immediately reached in, switched off her engine, and pulled out the key. H managed to grab part of the key ring as well, and the two had a tug-of war. H has skinny little arms, so no prize for guessing who won. The thug, whose name is Nathan A/L Supramaniam, ripped the part with all the keys right from her grip; H was left with the remote for the alarm and a twisted piece of metal that used to be a key ring.

Leen was out of the car by that time, and was yelling at the repo man. H got out too. Before they could even fully take in what was going on, a tow-truck that had been tailing them pulled up, the repo man hooked H’s car up to it, and it drove away. That was around the time Leen called me.

Once the car was gone, Nathan, the repo man, tried to pour on the charm, but the whole “Just doing my job” thing didn’t make the ladies feel any better. Nor did the fact that he even gave them a lift…to the next traffic light. Leen and H got out of Nathan’s car (which also contained several children) and walked up a hill to a bus stop on the side of the Cheras-Kajang highway. Then Leen called me again. And again. And again. My wife, eight months pregnant and tired from a long day at work, didn’t deserve the treatment she got that day. Nobody deserves that, but come on. It was nasty.

I was still standing on the side of the road in Taman Len Sen. When the mechanic had finally fixed my car, I forked over 400 Ringgit (sucks but it could have been way worse) and raced to that bus stop to get Leen and H. Needless to say, they were a mess. H was crying, and Leen was still swearing.

It gets worse

The next day H’s family managed to gather together enough money to get the car back. When she finally got it back, she asked for the keys and was told they should be with her. Nathan, she was told, had said she still had the keys. But the last time she’d seen the keys was when he’d ripped them from her hands. Next stop: the police station in Puchong, near her parents’ place.

When she made a police report, an interesting thing happened: the police actually expressed concern. Now, I’ve dealt with the Royal Malaysian Police on several occasions, and my opinion of them is not exactly glowing. Insult a monarch and you’re royally screwed, but you could very well get away with screwing over the average citizen — or, in my case, the average visitor.

And yet here were the Royal Malaysian Police expressing great concern over H’s safety. Okay, so she’s young and slim and pretty…but I’m trying to believe that wasn’t the only reason the cops were concerned. She said they were actually concerned, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. According to the officers who took her statement, there have been many cases just like H’s, and they didn’t all end well. Apparently there are syndicates that are closely tied to the repo men, who sometimes really are gangsters in every sense of the word. The repo men (or the gangsters they work for) take the keys to the car and simply wait for the owner to get the car back. Then they shadow the car and waits for the right moment to strike. Some wait till the owner leaves the car unattended; others will just run it off the road, open the door, toss out the driver, and take off with the car. Unfortunately the ‘toss out the driver’ part often includes violence. Terrible violence. The police officers strongly advised Hanim to change the locks on her car right away.

The fact that the police called H several times to make sure she was okay didn’t really comfort any of us; it just made us worry more. H is afraid to drive her car now, especially alone, and especially at night. I’m not too thrilled by the idea of Leen and Al leaving here every morning in that car, either. So this morning I drove everyone to their respective destinations.

The more we talked about it, the angrier I became. I mean, I don’t dispute the bank’s right to repossess a vehicle when a certain number of payments are missed. Nor do I disagree with the concept of the repo man. But I think a line was crossed in this case…and, I’m told, this case is not unique. A lot of people who heard this story over the last couple of days have told me that it’s quite common for repo men to bully drivers off the roads and out of their cars. In Malaysia, anyway.

Theft Vs. Robbery

We have repo men back home too. I’m sure there are probably all kinds of cases in which repo men have nasty confrontations with people whose cars are being repossessed. But there’s a very important difference between auto repossession in North America and here in Malaysia. Here’s a description of how auto repossession is carried out in the US, for example:

It should be pointed out that almost all state laws require that a repossession be done in a peaceful manner. Since most people get very upset when they see a repo man repossessing their vehicle, most repossessions are completed in the middle of the night or while the debtor is working without the owner’s knowledge. It’s really a legal steal. This gets around the “peaceful manner” state laws. The old term “possession is nine tenths of the law” applies in auto repossession. Normally, the repossession is not complete until the vehicle is off of the debtor’s property. It is usually unlawful to enter a closed garage in order to complete the repossession. In such a case, the repo man usually waits until the subject is at work or he’ll follow him to the grocery store or something. That way, the repossession can be completed in an easy manner.

Before the repossessor attempts to repo the vehicle, he must first make very sure he is repoing the right car. He will match the VIN number he obtains from his client to the VIN number on the vehicle. The VIN number is usually located on the dashboard on the driver’s side.

The repossession agent has a number of methods in which a vehicle is removed or taken into possession.

Just about every vehicle that has been sold in the last five or six years has a key code. Key codes can usually be obtained from the title slip. A copy of the key code is usually kept on file at the car dealership. In more recent times, it has become the practice of many banks to obtain the key codes for each loan file and they will have a record of it. Some banks even go as far as having a set of keys cut and kept with the file. A key code is simply a code number used to cut the keys. The repossessor either does this himself with a key cutting machine or has a locksmith do it for him. Although many repo men have become auto locksmiths themselves, this is really not a requirement. The majority of repo men simply have an account with a local locksmith who does his work for him. With the key codes, the repo man simply has a set of keys cut and uses them to complete the repossession. However, sometimes key codes are not available and other times the debtor has had his locks changed so the key codes will not work.

Many repo men use towing as a means of repossession. Many start out making a deal with a local towing company who will give them a discount price. Later, the repo man can purchase a used tow truck if he likes this method.

You can purchase a small metal rod called a slimjim that is used to place down the door which catches the lock part that pulls up the door lock so you can open the car door. Another method is the coat hanger method. People do not know this but glass will bend somewhat.

Once inside the vehicle, the repo man uses several different methods to start the vehicle if he does not have the key. The old key housings that are located in the dash simply unscrew. Once unscrewed, all one has to do is place a screwdriver into the housing and turn. On newer models, the lock housing is on the steering column. In such a case, the repo man either pickes the lock or uses what is called a dent puller. A dent puller is a large round rod that has a sliding hammer on it. On one side is a screw type bolt that can be screwed down into the lock housing. Once in place, the lock housing can be, “hammered” or “slammed out”. This item is used by auto body shops to pull out dents. Another method is a lock lifter. This is a screw type piece of equipment that goes over the lock housing. It forces tension on the lock until the housing is lifted out. Once out, the repo man simply starts the vehicle by placing a screwdriver down into the now open housing.

Note the part that calls auto repossession a “legal steal”. That’s basically what it is: legal theft. But there’s a very clear distinction to be made between theft and robbery. What happened to H and Leen on Wednesday was not theft. It was robbery, plain and simple. They were carjacked. Considering the police reaction to this particular case, I’m not even sure if we can call this legal robbery. Maybe technically it was. But whether or not it was legal, one thing is certain: this particular carjacking was carried out on behalf of a major financial institution, namely RHB Bank. The carjacker may have been working for a different company (in this case PJ Automart) that RHB Bank had contracted the job out to, but the bottom line is that the guy was working for RHB Bank.

Through some contacts I managed to talk to someone from RHB Bank’s Corporate Comms today, a friendly fellow named Zaihan. I explained the situation to him, and even managed not to yell. He expressed shock and dismay. There are protocols repo men are supposed to follow, he said. I’m sure there are rules these guys are supposed to adhere to, but is anyone enforcing those rules? If the rules are not enforced, and the repo men don’t follow them, who is held accountable? I don’t think simply terminating the services of repo men who do things like this is enough. Ultimately, RHB Bank is responsible for what happened. Mr. Zaihan apologised on behalf of RHB Bank, but I wasn’t the victim here. I told Zaihan that RHB Bank should 1) apologise to H and my wife, 2) replace the locks on H’s car, and 3) put in place a stricter policy so that incidents like this do not occur in the future.

Where to now?

Zaihan said he’ll get back to me Tuesday, so we’ll have to wait until then to see where this goes. I appreciate his concern, and I really hope this can be resolved amicably. This is an opportunity for RHB Bank to take the lead in putting stricter, more adequate controls on the business of auto repossession in Malaysia. Yes, supposedly there are rules in place, and supposedly there is a ‘Car Repossession Code of Ethics‘, but it seems to me Malaysian auto repossessors are really stretching the boundaries of what is legal and ethical.

If you believe everything happens for a reason, then you might believe my car broke down so I wouldn’t be able to race to where Leen was in time to have a violent confrontation with the thug who took H’s car. The 400 Ringgit I had to pay the mechanic is a small price to pay for the fact that I’m sitting here and not in a prison cell doing time for seriously injuring someone. You might also believe this entire incident happened so that a spotlight could be cast upon the dirty tactics employed by repo men in Malaysia. I don’t know if I believe any of that, though it is tempting. I just hope this incident ultimately leads to some positive changes, and ideally the end of bank-sanctioned carjackings in this country.