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bail bond competition

December 31, 2001

Bail bondsmen vie for top billing



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY
andreabh@herald-mail.com


Hagerstown bail bondsman Greg Toms passes out business cards with a flip side: "Get out of jail free."

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The prank cards get chuckles in an industry rife with competition that's often no laughing matter.

"It's a cut-throat business," said Toms, owner of A-Above Average Bail Bonds at 23 W. Antietam St. "Everybody wants a piece of the pie."

Toms and two other bail bondsmen peddle freedom across from the new district court building in downtown Hagerstown.

They compete with easy-payment promotions, catchy one-liner business cards and such one-upmanship tactics as jockeying for top billing in the phone directory to siccing the industry watchdog on each other.

Dean Salter, manager of Jim Frank Bail Bonds at 37 W. Antietam St., said an aggressive competitor once hawked his bargain bond deal from the courthouse steps in an attempt to lure customers from Frank's lobby to his establishment.

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"The competition's ridiculous," business owner Jim Frank said.

Many bail bondsmen adopt several business names so they can out-alphabetize each other in the phone books and jailhouse lists often used by first-time customers, Salter said.

Jim Frank Bail Bonds also advertises as A Abailable Bail Bonds. Al Bare Bail Bonds at 33 W. Antietam St. uses the alternate name A ABAC Bail Bonds in the Yellow Pages. Toms is also guaranteed a place at the top of the directory with his business name.

Paying for a full-page ad in the phone directory each year secures the same top spot in the directory, Salter said. He and Frank also advertise house calls. They all accept collect calls.

And catchy slogans are as common in the business as excuses for failing to appear in court.

"Don't stay in the tank, call Jim Frank," it reads on the tags attached to the tiny handcuffs Dean Salter hands out.

Tanya Bare of Al Bare Bail Bonds passes out cards that read, "Don't cuss, call us."

"I can set you free," Toms says on his cards.

The bondsmen treat their customers well to ensure repeat business, they said.

"I don't send thugs out to your door to beat on you or tell you if you don't pay you're going back to jail," Salter said. "Some bail bondsmen I won't name do."

"We're like Wal-Mart or Kmart," Frank added. "We need repeat business, too."

The bondsmen can offer flexible payment plans to qualified customers, and accept multiple co-signers for some high-priced bonds, they said.

They even treat some of the bail-jumpers they recapture to sodas, food, phone calls and cigarettes. These people are among the best advertisements in the customer pool at area jails, Toms said.

"Who's going to call the bail bondsmen who beat the other guy up in the car on the way back to Hagerstown?" said Toms, who often cuffs his customer in front so they're more comfortable on the ride back to jail.

Bare, daughter of business founder Al Bare, said 80 percent of her clients are repeat customers. They come back because she treats them fairly, she said.

"I don't think I'm better than anybody else," Bare said. "No one can accuse me of not treating prisoners well."

Such complaints would be lodged with the Maryland Insurance Administration, which oversees the state's bail bond industry.

Bare called MIA investigators to look into what she alleges are shady business practices by a competitor, she said.

The MIA is "doing many investigations of bail bondsmen across the state" but will not discuss ongoing investigations, agency spokeswoman Debbie Rosen McKerrow said.

Bare also called the MIA when her neighboring competitors began advertising discounts on bond premiums.

"This is not just 'bail bond row' or 'crime outlets,'" Bare said. "These are serious businesses that can be very misleading to the community because of the way they advertise. I don't believe in it. I feel like it should be illegal."

Frank and Salter printed brochures that explain bond laws to help customers avoid the misunderstanding that stems from discount offers, they said.

They began distributing the brochures after Toms started advertising a possible down payment of 5 percent, with the remaining 5 percent paid in weekly installments.

"We fought that for a while. It's misleading," Salter said. "Most people don't have a clue. They want to pay less. But the law says you have to pay 10 percent."

But it wasn't long before Salter and Frank put out their own sign advertising a possible 3 percent down payment. It has boosted business, and "That's No. 1," Salter said.

Few customers qualify for the discounts, the bondsmen said. Toms requires at least two good co-signers. Frank and Salter require co-signers with decent jobs and home mortgages.

The Jim Frank Bail Bonds storefront stands out because of the big 3 percent discount sign on the front sidewalk.

The "5 percent down possible" sign, air-blown balloon-type man on the sidewalk, and windows plastered with bail jumper reward posters, attract business - or at least curious onlookers - to Toms' store.

Bare's business lacks sidewalk advertising.

"I think you become advertising poor," she said. "I base my business on my reputation."

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