License plate readers in use by repo agents
PHOENIX (KSAZ) - Police use them to fight crime, we're talking about license plate readers. They are mounted on police cars that scan license plates.
But they aren't the only ones using the technology, repo companies are using them too, taking millions of photos of cars and noting the locations.
So what happens to all that information, who can see it, and how is it used?
Jason DeManto has spotted the readers on cars driving on the freeways and in parking lots.
"Kind of felt like a violation, like a civil liberties violation," said Jason DeManto.
Police departments use the readers to find stolen cars and criminals, but repo companies are now using them to track down cars targeted for repossession.
MVRTRAC is a maker of the cameras and put a video on YouTube showcasing how they work. The cameras snap photos of license plates while driving and instantly cross-reference the numbers with financial institutions. If there is a hit, the car becomes a repo target.
DeManto was close to a car equipped with the readers, so he believes his car was photographed.
"They have no business knowing where I am, what I am doing, or where I am going. It is what they are doing with the information, what databases is it going into," said DeManto.
So what does happen with the data? Attorney Russ Richelsoph has an idea.
"I know private investigators who are using this information to get information to help lawyers like me in my cases. They are able to locate people, find people that we need to serve subpoenas on, find people who have judgments against them that we need to collect against," said Richelsoph.
He says there are no laws preventing repo companies from taking pictures of your car while you are out in public and storing those photos in huge databases.
The pictures don't reveal much more than the time and location where the car was spotted, but sometimes that is all that is needed.
"What we are looking for in these kinds of thing is whether the vehicle is showing up in a particular place," said Richelsoph.
Rich Robertson is a private investigator with R3 investigations in Mesa.
"It's just one of the tools in the toolbox that investigators use to try and locate witnesses to find property," said Robertson.
He says the databases are only accessible by licensed professionals and provide no personal information.
"It's not like it is out there that anyone can go in and access. You can't get access to this stuff to stalk someone. It tells you nothing about the person; you have no idea who drove it, how they got there, how long it has been sitting there," said Robertson.
That gives people like DeManto little comfort.
"The whereabouts of where I am, who I am, and where I am located seems like more of a violation than anything," said DeManto.
and because the photos are taken in public places, there are few if any restrictions on what a private company can do with the pictures and information.
"The only way to stop this from happening is for the legislature to pass laws," he said.
Until that happens, and if it ever does, the camera technology that has revolutionized the repo business will continue to snap thousands of photos every minute.