John Heinkel, a professional repo man with a full head of graying hair and a small and scrappy build, hoists a Lime scooter on its back wheel, setting off the alarm underneath the scooter’s brake. Heinkel muffles the annoying sound with his hand.
“You want to throw a couple?” he offers at one point, gesturing toward the dumpster, halfway jokingly.
Dan Borelli, his business partner, says that towing scooters is no different than writing parking tickets. “We aren’t just grabbing scooters off the street and throwing them in a yard,” Borelli insists. “We write a parking ticket for every single one we have.”
Together, the two men run an operation called ScootScoop. They say that they have impounded thousands of dockless e-scooters around San Diego on behalf of business owners and landlords who are fed up with the deluge of dockless two-wheelers.
ScootScoop is a simple, low-budget concept, making use of a tow yard and flatbed truck that Heinkel already owns. Their advertising is word-of-mouth. They have no employees and no outside funding. But they seem to pose an existential threat to the multibillion-dollar scooter industry.
First came the lawsuits. Heinkel and Borelli are accused in a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in late March of improperly impounding Bird’s scooters and then ransoming them back to the $2 billion company. Lime filed a nearly identical suit soon after.
The same companies that had raised hundreds of millions of dollars working around any local permits or regulations are now demanding protections under the California Vehicle Code, asking a judge to intervene and save their dockless scooters from ScootScoop. Depositions are scheduled to take place at the end of July.
“The people of San Diego are being bamboozled by a local tow company scheme,” Bird’s press team says in an emailed statement. “Scooter Removal aka ScootScoop, orchestrated by Talon Auto Adjusters,” the name of Heinkel’s repossession business, “is unlawfully impounding micro-mobility devices and demanding a ransom for their return.”
Ransom is a word “that we don’t really particularly like,” Borelli told me. “It’s a fake bully word that’s been made up to make our character look worse.”