Private License Plate Scanners Amassing Vast Databases
Article Courtesy of: Popular Science
Only Scott Toth knew exactly how this would go.
He deftly hooked his tow truck to a gleaming white 2012 Chevy Cruze in a matter of seconds.
A young woman in the passenger seat jumped out and screamed toward the convenience-store entrance: “Somebody get — ! He’s inside!” Then Toth began securing straps to the wheels and hoisted the Chevy onto a hydraulic boom that resembled a giant spatula. The car’s owner emerged from the store, advancing angrily. Other drivers pulled out of adjacent spaces like cowboys abandoning their bar stools.
At 5’11” with wide shoulders and a buzz cut, Toth—a repossession agent out of Cleveland—looks a little like a drill sergeant, though he has considerably better people skills. To calm older drivers, he’ll turn the conversation to his four daughters, projecting the image of a beleaguered 34-year-old father with a house full of teens. But with the Chevy’s glaring driver—a guy of about 20 with an athletic build, camo baseball cap, and carefully considered facial scruff—this clearly wouldn’t work. Instead, Toth lit a cigarette. The driver, seeing the gesture, paused and sparked up too. For a moment, the two stood like country gentlemen enjoying the evening light. “Sounds like you haven’t made a few payments,” Toth said amiably, looking out at the horizon.
“That’s about right,” the man said.
“Can I have the keys?” Toth asked. Keys would help get the Chevy out of park and into neutral, making any getaway much smoother.
“I ain’t giving you s—,” the driver responded. His female companion stood to one side, anxiously chewing her fingernails.
With that, Toth nonchalantly climbed back into his Dodge 3500 and gunned the 6.7-liter Cummins diesel, performing what’s known in the industry as a “drag,” yanking the Chevy across the convenience-store lot, leaving parallel black scars on the pavement behind him. About 50 feet away, he pulled into an empty lot, unhooked the Chevy’s back bumper, and drove around to the front so he could tow the car freely on its rear wheels. Before setting off, he uploaded a few photos of the vehicle’s condition to the company intranet through the truck’s encrypted WiFi hotspot. Meanwhile, back at the store, the car’s owner ranted loudly to his friends, then hustled into a white pickup. Still within earshot, Toth didn’t look up. “He’s just mad,” he said, “and there’s nothing he can do about it.” Toth has performed this maneuver more than 4,000 times, and over that period, he has watched as his repo firm, Relentless, grew from a one-truck shop into a high-volume “collateral recovery agency” with 20 trucks and thousands of dollars in digital equipment. He has also seen his business transform from a simple one (find car, take car) into one that involves the sophisticated coordination of data and vehicle logistics.
Toth didn’t just happen upon the white Chevy, after all.
His truck is customized with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras and image processors and can scan plates even while tearing down a highway. Earlier that day, he had received a tip: The bank that held the auto loan sent an electronic packet of information on the Chevy, gleaned from previous plate scans, that contained the car’s historical coordinates. Toth matched the data with the driver’s personal details, and with a laptop as his co-pilot, he used it to predict the Chevy’s location.
In the world of repossession, Toth’s ability to pull together strands of data into a coherent story is becoming the norm. In just a few years, companies like Relentless have quietly captured billions of GPS-stamped license-plate scans—accounting for more than half of all cars on the road today. That information is stored in a handful of centralized databases, managed by companies few people have ever heard of. There are, of course, more sophisticated ways to pinpoint someone’s location—GPS coordinates, cellphone bread crumbs, and facial recognition. But those are held in check by technical hurdles or established privacy policies. License-plate capture is both relatively easy and perfectly legal (at least in most states). And that’s had the unlikely effect of putting repo men like Toth at the frontier of personal data and surveillance.
When he finished uploading the images, Toth pulled out of the parking lot with a roar, the Chevy jouncing behind us. I had to admire his efficiency, but I was also left with the nagging question of how I might feel had the car been mine. Life is busy. It is not inconceivable to think of missing a few payments on my auto loan. And the plates on my Subaru station wagon back in New England must certainly be among the billions contained in one of the national private databases. Chances are, they’re cued up and waiting, ready to tell the story of my life.
Repossession agents have been fixtures of the auto industry since the rise of accessible credit in the 1920s.
Banks hire them to collect a vehicle, sometimes the day it goes into default. The agent tows the car, and the bank pays between 300 to 800 bucks a claim. Successful agents have always had a head for numbers and facts, assembling a driver profile to predict the location of a parked car. But the ability to learn about drivers rapidly accelerated in the early 2000s. Repo sites such as Skiptracers and Merlin Data opened vast databases to agents—property addresses, military-service dates, electric-company bills, spouse names, criminal histories, bankruptcies—aggregating information with computer efficiency. Then the premier white-collar research company, LexisNexis, got into the field in 2004, with its Accurint site for repossessors and police, offering an even broader set of online tools (with a subscription). To counter that move, rival TLO.com, owned by credit bureau TransUnion, offered much the same data for just a buck per search. When license-plate cameras became available to repo agencies in 2009, many started mounting units on trucks. As an agent drove down the street, the cameras captured plates while computers ran them against cars on several banks’ default lists. By just cruising around, an agent could significantly boost the number of hits. A single truck could scan as many as 8,000 plates in one day.
“Relentless has hired a handful of ‘scouts’ whose sole purpose is to suck up license plates all day.”
By 2010, license-plate scanners had become standard equipment for most urban repo firms, and the number of plates stored in national databases was growing by tens of millions a month. Even though there are about a quarter of a billion vehicles in the U.S. total, cars are often scanned a dozen times or more in different locations. The richer the data gets, the easier it is to make predictions about a driver’s home address, workplace, gym, or favorite restaurant. Digital Recognition Network (DRN) has one of the largest plate-capture databases in the country, with a fleet of more than 2,000 affiliated trucks and upwards of 1.8 billion scans. According to DRN, the technology increases the number of cars repossessed by 14 percent. “It allows repossession agents to work more efficiently and to look at data insights to more effectively predict where the car may be,” says DRN’s CEO, Chris Metaxas, a former vice president of sales at Lexis-Nexis who oversaw its government division.
Spurred by success, repo firms have begun to make data collection an even greater part of their operations. Toth’s employer, Relentless, has hired a handful of “scouts” whose sole purpose is to suck up license plates all day. One such person is Lori Jones. For eight hours a day, six days a week, the suburban mother of four tools around Cleveland in an unassuming Honda Fit. Hidden in its air vents is a $23,000 camera suite—including a 20-millimeter lens to spot cars in motion and a 50-millimeter lens to capture vehicles parked 60 feet up a driveway. Where the back seat used to be, a rack-mounted imaging system extracts plate numbers from a photo and stamps them with the time and GPS coordinates. Jones and three other scouts in the Relentless fleet capture nearly a million images per month in Ohio.
Typically, Jones focuses on large parking lots, apartment buildings, and businesses. When she gets a hit, a sound like an air-raid siren goes off. If the claim is parked, she hops out of her Fit to double-check the VIN number and call in a repo agent like Toth. She even scans during breaks. On an average day, she’ll be at the entrance to a local mall, picking at a Chipotle salad while monitoring a laptop screen with thousands of images flashing over it. “I like to be productive during my lunch hour,” she says cheerfully. It’s hard to imagine a less threatening face for personal surveillance.
As Toth hauled down Route 20 toward Euclid, a succession of miniature-golf courses, crowded soft-serve joints, and late-summer farm fields swept by in a blur. He glanced at his various screens and amiably shared trade secrets: During a long shift, a truck-stop shower is a small luxury at just $12; a pack of hot dogs works wonders in a neighborhood with ferocious canines; and winter is the best time to repo because few people are willing to run down the street in their underpants.
Toth first learned about the field 10 years ago, when his own car was repossessed.
He started an agency, then became the field manager for Relentless. With his commissions, he quickly paid off his house; the job, he says, instills a healthy respect for the hazards of debt. As the volume at Relentless has increased, so too have the commissions, at least for top field agents like Toth. “You used to pick up maybe one car a day, though you had almost no information on the driver. Now we get as many as five a day, and I have everything I need right here,” he said, nodding to the electronics on his console. His laptop gives him the orders through a secure repossession portal, displaying the name of the driver, address, and historical plates. From the same portal he can follow a reclaimed car’s condition as it moves through processing back at Relentless (cleaning, taking inventory of the contents, and moving to auction in 45 days).
Outside the truck, four cameras sit on either side of the bed, each capable of collecting up to 1,800 scans per minute.
To improve accuracy, each camera is ringed by powerful LEDs that shine infrared light undetectable to the human eye. The light helps illuminate plates in darkness at a distance of up to 60 feet. According to the camera’s manufacturer, Vigilant, it can also defeat license-plate covers meant to obscure scans.
The scan starts out as a low-resolution black-and-white, but image-processing software locates the license plate within it. Character-recognition software then extracts the plate number. Finally, the image, GPS data, time, and plate number are sent wirelessly to the database vendor in Forth Worth, Texas.
For all the technology that surrounds him, Toth is quick to point out that scanning plates remains a small part of the job; the main task is still grabbing cars and managing people under tense circumstances. Data may help him zero in, but it doesn’t do a whole lot when it comes to dealing with the vagaries of human nature. “You just never know what the day will bring,” he said, bearing down on a two-hot-dog lunch at the wheel.
As if on cue, the white Chevy strapped to his truck began to act up. First, it chirped and its lights flashed. Then the horn blared. In the distance, we could see a dirty white pickup accelerating toward us. The Chevy’s erstwhile owner, following us, still had his key fob and was remotely flipping the door locks and activating the horn. Toth checked the rearview and nodded. “He’s just trying to be a jerk,” he said. He had over 50 miles to lose the pickup before he arrived at the impound lot. “The last thing you want is to have people follow you back to home base,” he said. “If they can catch you when the gate is open, then they have the advantage.” Toth has had drivers try to block his path and attempt to retrieve the car by force.
For the next 15 minutes, the white pickup bombed down Route 20 to keep pace with us. When Toth pulled to the side, it passed us but soon reappeared ahead, crawling along the breakdown lane, biding time until we caught up. When Toth taxied into a Walmart lot, it followed and parked at a distance. Toth whipped around and pulled up next to it, affecting the stentorian tone of a high school principal: “Is there a problem?” For a split second, no one blinked.
Then the man’s face softened, and he shook his head. “No, I was just out . . . driving around,” he offered.
Perhaps the man needed a little more driving time to wrap his head around what had just occurred.
Repo has never been easy or pleasant for those in default. But the speed and accuracy with which it can happen today perhaps makes it more jarring still. Having one’s personal data tracked is a fact of life. Credit scores are the most basic example, but in recent years we’ve added others: GPS, facial recognition, Web cookies, store loyalty cards, fitness data, Klout Scores. But in every case, the tracking seems somehow distant—separated either by technical and legal hurdles or by the notion that users can opt out. Right or wrong, those data streams don’t seem to carry real-world consequences. But when someone uses data to guess your favored haunts and reclaim your car, the consequences become very real, very fast.
Afew hours after dropping off the Chevy and taking a smoke break, Toth was stalking a yellow 2011 Camaro in a dark parking lot when a message popped up on his phone: All staff were to gather downtown over a case of Red Stripe. We soon arrived at a row of houseboats moored on a squiggly part of the Cuyahoga River, what’s called Collision Bend, and spotted the firm’s CEO, John Ziebro, swinging by his hands from a wooden gate over the river. “You don’t want to end up in that water,” Toth cracked, pointing at the troubled canal that infamously caught on fire in the 1960s. Standing in front of an antique houseboat was John’s brother David Ziebro, a co-owner of Relentless, along with one of the most successful female repo agents in the industry, another co-owner, Amy Bednar.