The computer in the spotter car shouted “Hide!,” and repo agent Derek Lewis knew that meant to keep driving like nothing had 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.

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