Around the world, thousands of boats and ships are stolen or improperly seized each year, and many become part of a "phantom fleet" of vessels used for illegal trafficking, piracy, and violating embargoes, reports the New York Times. Working at ports in places like Haiti, Trinidad, and Greece, Max Hardberger is one of the maritime repo men tasked with retrieving such vessels for banks, insurers, or owners. In a lengthy Times feature, he and others in the business talk about their trade. "Occasionally the legal system solves the problem,” Hardberger tells the Times. Often, however, the repo men of the sea need to get creative. For Hardberger, that has meant distracting guards with liquor and prostitutes, posing as a potential buyer, and employing a local witch doctor to spook authorities. Repo man Steve Salem recalls a retrieval from the Abacos Islands: “I swam out to it one night and took the boat back."
"Port scams," the Times notes, "are as old as shipping itself." For example, a shipyard might perform repairs and run up an astronomical bill, hoping to force the vessel into forfeiture. And the law, one repo man says, often favors the thieves. A court justice in the Bahamas writes that, with Haiti's port and legal system, “cronyism and corruption are the order of the day.” Nonetheless, authorities at the ports at which the repo men operate see them as vigilantes. “They deserve to be arrested,” a Haitian Coast Guard officer tells the Times. One former US Naval Intelligence official says he believes the repo men follow existing rules, but worries about how they embarrass local authorities and worsen corruption by paying bribes. On the subject of bribes, repo man Charles Meacham tells the Times: “Bribery is illegal. Negotiating a fine is not.” Read the whole fascinating story here. (Read more Haiti stories.)