Fighting For Fair

Dude, Where’s My Car?

4 Scary New Repossession Techniques

BY Thom FainOctober 16, 2018

More Americans are behind on their auto loan payments – and that means boom times are here for companies in the repossession business.

A report by the LA Times found that 6.3 million Americans are 90 days late or more on their auto loan payments—about 400,000 more than the year before. We’ve covered some of the reasons for America’s auto loan problem, which include high interest rates charged to some subprime borrowers that can often leave them with little hope of ever paying off their cars.

But there’s another tangible consequence of being this far behind on one’s payments – and stuck in a model that doesn’t allow you to choose how long you drive. In short, it makes the driver officially “delinquent” and subject not only to having their vehicle repossessed, but also to the increasingly high-tech methods being employed in the practice. Below are a few of the scariest ones we’ve heard.

1. High-Tech Trawling

Today’s repossession agents, as detailed by the Washington Post, often aren’t looking for specific vehicles; rather, they’re doing a form of digital plate scanning that can net anyone who happens to be out and about in a car with delinquent payments. With multiple car-mounted, wide-lens cameras, thousands of plates can be scanned per hour—with each plate number processed almost instantaneously, offering immediate intel on potential car targets.

2. Data Sharing

And how does the high-tech fishing expedition detailed above find its targets? Turns out, through giant databases that can not only alert a repo agent when they’ve scanned the license plate of a delinquent vehicle, but that can keep track of all the places a given license plate has been scanned in the past. This way, if a given vehicle isn't parked at the lender-provided address, repo agents could dig into its past scans to get a good sense of where it could be. This information is provided by a network of “camera affiliates,” which consist of law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, private investigators—and, of course, those in the repossession business. According to USA Today, the biggest such database has 2.3 billion permanent records—enough for every license plate in America to be documented nine different times.

3. Funny Math

Losing your car is only one of the negative outcomes of a repossession. There are also the fees and penalties you can be facing—some of which may not even be legit. A Dallas-based subprime lender has been ordered to repay consumers $2.9 million related to allegedly miscalculating balances owed on repossessed cars, failing to provide documentation after forcibly taking vehicles back, and charging unjustified convenience fees. The order comes barely a year after that same lender settled for $26 million in a separate case.

4. Remote-Control Wheel Lifts

Gone are the days when a tow truck needed a couple parking spaces worth of room in front of a car to do its work. These days—unless your car is parked in a garage—it can pretty much be towed away. That’s due in part to powerful towing machines that give a repo agent the ability to hoist a car from almost any surface and at any angle using remote control. Instead of chains and winches, these machines can extend a steel support structure under your car from any direction, then level, tilt and lift it off the street like a spatula sliding under a pancake. Which might make us hungry if it wasn’t so downright bone-chilling.

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