Sub­prime loans drive repo man’s busi­ness

Re­pos­ses­sion of cars hot mar­ket in un­even econ­omy

Orlando Sentinel - - PEOPLE & ARTS - By Todd C. Frankel The Wash­ing­ton Post

CLEVELAND — The com­puter in the spot­ter car shouted “Hide!” and repo agent Derek Lewis knew that meant to keep driv­ing like noth­ing hap­pened. He’d just found an­other wanted ve­hi­cle. He was about to ruin some­one’s day. Best not to draw at­ten­tion.

It helped that he wasn’t in a tow truck, the stereo­typ­i­cal im­age of a repo man. Lewis drove a beat-up Ford Crown Vic­to­ria sedan. It had four small cam­eras mounted on the trunk and a lap­top bolted to the dash. The high-speed cam­eras cap­tured ev­ery pass­ing li­cense plate. The com­puter con­tained a grow­ing list of hun­dreds of thou­sands of ve­hi­cles with se­ri­ously late loans. The sys­tem could spot a re­pos­ses­sion in an in­stant. Even bet­ter, it could keep tabs on a car long be­fore the loan went bad.

Now, Lewis had a live hit in a park­ing lot. He glanced at his lap­top. The plate matched a blue 2006 BMW 325xi. He twisted in his seat. “It’s right there,” he said.

Tech­nol­ogy has made the repo man ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient, al­low­ing this fa­mil­iar an­gel of fi­nan­cial calamity to cap­i­tal­ize on a dark cor­ner of the United States’ strong econ­omy: the soar­ing num­ber of peo­ple fall­ing be­hind on their car pay­ments.

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.

And the repo man has no­ticed the change.

“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. “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.

Lewis rolled to a far cor­ner of the park­ing lot, next to an apart­ment build­ing over­look­ing Lake Erie, and called the BMW’s lender.

“I’m sit­ting on a live hit for you,” he said.

He texted for a com­pany tow truck. It was seven min­utes away.

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 eighthour shift.

Lewis works for Re­lent­less Re­cov­ery, the largest repo com­pany in Ohio and its busiest col­lec­tor of li­cense plate scans. Last year, the com­pany re­pos­sessed more than 25,500 ve­hi­cles.

Busi­ness has more than dou­bled since 2014, the com­pany said. Even with the rising de­ploy­ment of re­mote en­gine cut­offs and GPS lo­ca­tors in cars, repo agen­cies re­main dominant.

Re­lent­less scanned 28 mil­lion li­cense plates last year, a demon­stra­tion of its re­cent, heavy push into tech­nol­ogy. It now has more than 40 cam­er­ae­quipped 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 that will aid in re­pos­ses­sions.

DUSTIN FRANZ/FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Derek Lewis backs up a car equipped with li­cense-platere­cog­ni­tion cam­eras at Re­lent­less Re­cov­ery in Cleveland.

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