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View Full Version : High-tech 'repo man' keeps car payments coming



SnakebyteXX
11-30-2005, 06:45 AM
By Joanne Kimberlin, The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. NOTE TO REPO MAN: Might want to look into another line of work.

The PayTeck Smart Box that hands over a five-digit code in exchange for each car payment.

By John H. Sheally II, The Virginian-Pilot via AP

A new gizmo is upping the odds that even the most hard-knock customer will come up with the car payment. Hooked into the ignition system, the gadget comes in a handful of versions with one common conclusion:

No pay, no start.

It's worked wonders at Norfolk's Patriot Auto Sales, where nearly every car that drives off the lot is outfitted with a PayTeck Smart Box, a system that hands over a five-digit code in exchange for each payment. Come due date, the car won't crank until the customer punches the code into a palm-size keypad wired into the dash.

Patriot is the kind of operation that specializes in steeper interest, high-risk car loans. It advertises "no turndowns" a corner of the used car business that deals with a "credit-challenged" clientele, as the industry puts it.

"Bad credit?" said Art Madden, Patriots general manager. "I'd be happy if they just had bad credit."

Not surprisingly, default rates are high. It's not unusual for more than a third of the cars sold off such lots to wind up being repossessed. Since Patriot began using PayTeck three years ago, its repos have dropped from about 45% to less than 15%. Madden figures he has close to 500 of the $200 units on the road an investment that has not only cut repos but boosted business.

"Without it, we could never make a lot of the sales we do," Madden said, "not if we wanted to keep our doors open."

Buyers sign forms acknowledging the Smart Box, agreeing not to tamper with it and promising to return to the dealership for a free removal after the last payment is made.

Payments are due every two weeks at Patriot. Sales staff program the first due date into the Smart Box, and the system keeps track from there. As time runs out, tiny lights on the keypad shift from green to red, and a chirping noise provides an audible nudge. Codes, once keyed in, reset the box for another two weeks. There is a four-day grace period. After that, the unit kicks in and voila: no vroom.

"It's amazing how people manage to pay when they know their car won't start," Madden said.

Some consumer watchdogs don't approve, though no complaints have been filed on Virginia's consumer hotline.

"I think it's the level of control that bothers me," said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, a national non-profit group based in San Francisco. "It just sounds like Big Brother run amok. There's got to be a more respectful, less intrusive way of doing this that isn't so demeaning."

The systems will not cut off a running motor, but McEldowney still worries about safety.

"What if a young mother with children gets stranded in a dangerous part of town?" he asked. "Or someone needs to go to the hospital?"

But no-start systems have held up in court. In 1999, a handful of customers filed a lawsuit against Mel Farr, an NFL Hall of Famer who became a car dealer in Detroit. The buyers felt the devices posed a danger and wanted them removed. A judge, however, sided with Farr.

To minimize risks, though, Patriot times its no-start systems to switch on at 4 a.m., when cars are more likely to be parked at home. In the case of an emergency, special codes can be used to override the system for one 24-hour period.

And, Madden said, "we work with people, if they seem to be making an honest effort. But if we don't hear nothing from them or the same relative dies for the third or fourth time, bam, guess what? You're going nowhere."

Customers say the systems can be embarrassing, even for those who pay. For discretion, key pads often are tucked inside the glove box, but the chirping can be hard to miss. Some systems sound off every 30 seconds when the deadline draws near a racket a passenger, or new date, is sure to notice.

"Yeah, that part's not too good," said Calvin Flowers, a former customer-turned-salesman at Patriot. Two years ago, after a divorce, Flowers said, his credit was in shreds. He needed a car, but few dealers were willing to take a chance on him. He drove out of Patriot in a 1997 Chrysler LHS, armed with a Smart Box.

Mike Simon is president of Payment Protection Systems, one of the early pioneers and now among the largest producers of devices that "move the car payment from the lowest priority to among the highest," Simon said.

Based in Temecula, Calif., the company initially dealt in automobile anti-theft technology. But at a car convention in the mid-1990s, a dealer commented to Simon that while security is a fine thing, what he really needed was a way to make customers honor their loans. The company started marketing its On Time system in 1999, selling more than 200,000 units at last count. Of late, they've shipped to England, Mexico and South America.

"The need is the same everywhere," Simon said. "Most people want to pay, but it's not hard for them to get into financial trouble."

At Patriot, Madden says he's in the process of switching to a new Internet-based system that doesn't use codes. The system requires fewer staff to manage and will allow him to pick the moment when a car carrying one of his loans wont start. With one phone call, he can shut down a driver anywhere in the country for non- payment.

"It's all the difference for us," Madden said. "We don't really like it, but it sure works."


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