NEW ENGLAND—"They've been giving us the runaround on this money for a long time now, so we had no choice," said Victor Migliore of the Bayonne, NJ-based collection agency. "We mailed them four warnings and called the Capitol and White House at least 10 times each, but they just ignored us. Maybe now they'll finally realize we're not fooling around about that $5,498,415,904,232.05 they owe."

Collection agent Victor Migliore surveys a stretch of Cape Cod shoreline seized from the U.S.

"Make that $5,498,417,034,983.87," added Migliore, recalculating the growing debt after a two-second pause.

At 9 a.m., fences and highway barriers were placed across the border separating New York from Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut by professional "repo" men in the employ of G. Schmidt Collection Agency. Under the terms of the repossession, New England's 13 million residents have been given seven days to vacate the region or face criminal-trespassing charges. No citizen will be permitted to re-enter New England "until the entire debt is repayed or a mutually satisfactory repayment schedule has been agreed upon." Tolls collected on the Massachusetts Turnpike during the exodus will go toward payment of the debt, but experts say such funds are unlikely to exceed $20 million.

"The United States is certainly not acting like a country that is serious about settling its account with us," Migliore said. "Last Wednesday, I asked them for the money, and they said they didn't have it yet. The next day, I read in the paper that they just bought a brand-new $350 million Stealth fighter. How does that make them look? Not very good, that's for sure."

"What's worse, I recently learned from an associate that the U.S. has a budget surplus, but has chosen not to put any of it toward repaying us," Migliore said. "That definitely does not make me happy."

If the national debt, which is increasing at a rate of $267 million per day, is not paid off by June 1, G. Schmidt will begin seizing more property, beginning with Florida.

"We'll just keep repossessing land until we get our money," G. Schmidt president Raymond Swartz said. "Eventually, they'll come around."

U.S. Map

Swartz said his firm is well within its rights to seize New England, but noted that it is committed to helping the U.S. get through its current financial troubles. "We could have seized even more valuable and revenue-generating property, such as New York," he said. "But we want to give the U.S. a chance to get back on its feet again."

America's creditors said they are eager to see the long-owed money collected at last.

"Back in 1992, I lent the U.S. $85 million to buy concrete for some highway they were expanding in Texas," Japanese banker Hideki Matsuda said. "They wrote me an IOU and swore up and down that they'd pay me back by 1996. Well, I still haven't seen my money."

"If the U.S. ever tries to borrow $500 million from you, never, ever say yes, no matter how much they beg or how much they swear they're good for the cash," said Bundesbank president Günter Krupp, who in 1994 approved just such a loan. "I learned that the hard way."