How technology has redefined the job of the repo man

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.”

.. 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.

.. 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.

That all changed in recent years.

.. “Don’t make someone’s bad situation worse.” So he avoided hospital parking lots. But he loved shopping malls, especially the last row of lots, where the employees park. Discount stores were another target.

“For getting a live hit, this is the place to be,” he said earlier, weaving his way past rows of cars outside a Dollar General.

.. In the old days, agents picked up mostly entry-level cars — Chevy Chevettes and Dodge Neons.

.. The only cars still rarely seen are Subarus and Volvos — the unflashy favorites of the urbane upper middle class.

.. 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

.. Affordability is one factor. The average new car price has soared 20 percent over a decade, to $35,500, while wages have been sluggish.

.. April was always slow because people made car payments with tax refunds.

.. 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.

.. officials in Alameda, California, this year put on hold a contract to buy Vigilant’s technology over worries the scans could be used for federal immigration enforcement.

.. Half of Relentless’s repos are found within the first two days.