The surprising return of the repo man – the washington post electricity bill cost

#####

No longer tethered to a tow truck and able to use big data to find targets, the repossession industry is booming at an unexpected time. Although the U.S. economy recently entered its second-longest-ever period of expansion, the auto loan delinquency rate last year reached its highest point since 2012, driven by souring subprime auto loans. It’s evidence of how the economic recovery has not been evenly felt, with some of Americans’ biggest purchases — automobiles — being fueled by unsustainable borrowing rather than rising wages.

“So much of America is just a heartbeat away from a repossession — even good people, decent people who aren’t deadbeats,” said Patrick Altes, a veteran agent in Daytona Beach, Fla. “It seems like a different environment than it’s ever been.”

Repo agents are the unpopular foot soldiers in the nation’s $1.2 trillion auto loan market. They don’t make the loans or issue the repossession orders that, for some high-risk customers, can come as soon as a single payment is days late. But they are the closest most people come to a faceless, sophisticated financial system that can upend their lives.

He sat in silence, one of the few times his spotter car wasn’t logging new plates, each one trumpeted by a video-game-like bing. The system picked up passing cars. Parked cars. Cars stashed in driveways. As many as 10,000 every eight-hour shift.

Relentless scanned 28 million license plates last year, a demonstration of its recent, heavy push into technology. It now has more than 40 camera-equipped vehicles, mostly spotter cars. Agents are finding repos they never would have a few years ago.

The company’s goal is to capture every plate in Ohio and use that information to reveal patterns. A plate shot outside an apartment at 5 a.m. tells you that’s probably where the driver spends the night, no matter their listed home address. So when a repo order comes in for a car, the agent already knows where to look.

Lewis, 33, got his start repossessing cars when he was 14, helping his dad tow vehicles in the dead of night. His dad moved on to construction. But Lewis kept at it, eventually getting burned out on chasing cars. He went to work as a firefighter and paramedic — which provoked very different reactions from people — before returning a few years ago to the job he knew best. And for a while, the job remained mostly the same. He’d prowl around in a tow truck, armed with paper orders and a map, just praying the target vehicle was parked where it was supposed to be.

Although there are no national auto repossession statistics, other measures point to a growing problem. More than 4 percent of auto loans were at least 90 days late at the end of 2017 — the highest rate in five years. That number jumps to almost 10 percent for subprime auto loans alone, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Affordability is one factor. The average new car price has soared 20 percent over a decade, to $35,500, while wages have been sluggish. Auto loans now carry higher balances and longer terms, stretching out the timeline for trouble to appear.

Repo agents have their own theories about what’s going on — from fading attachment to vehicles to an increased willingness to walk away, a lesson learned from the housing crisis. One national list of active automobile repossession orders reached 360,000 this year, more than double what it was at the same time last year.

Lewis believed the industry followed a pulse. April was always slow because people made car payments with tax refunds. But repos soared on bad news, such as the loss of 1,500 autoworker jobs in Lordstown, Ohio, announced this year. Lewis recently heard that a nuclear power plant near Cleveland might shutter.

His own industry has seen changes, too. Regulators, led by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have cracked down on the job’s outlaw attitude. Lenders have pushed agents to take certification courses. Last year, Relentless switched its 120 workers from contractors to employees in an effort to change the culture and its incentives.

Repo agents are responsible for the majority of the billions of license plate scans produced nationwide. But they don’t control the information. Most of that data is owned by Digital Recognition Network (DRN), a Fort Worth company that is the largest provider of license-plate-recognition systems. And DRN sells the information to insurance companies, private investigators — even other repo agents.

DRN is a sister company to Vigilant Solutions, which provides the plate scans to law enforcement, including police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both companies declined to respond to questions about their operations. The potential misuse of the plate data has drawn criticism from privacy groups. A federal court in Nevada ruled in January that the scans do not amount to unwarranted surveillance because they are essentially snapshots taken in public.