Some high-risk borrowers now get car loans with a digital leash attached: if they don't pay up, they can't drive.
Elliot Munoz loves driving his Jeep Liberty around his hometown outside St. Louis, Mo. He particularly likes the four-wheel drive for the snow in his hilly town.
But when a red light on his dashboard starts flashing, Munoz knows he needs to get out his checkbook or else he won't be able to start the SUV.
"When you get near to your payment, it starts flashing red," Munoz, a steelworker said. "You might be busy, but you get in and you see light flashing red and it catches your eye."
With the device in his car, Munoz has never missed one of his $370 monthly payments.
Homeowners who fall behind on their mortgages can't hide their homes from banks looking to foreclose. But delinquent vehicle owners can easily move their vehicle around, hiding it from the repo man.
That has led car financing companies to charge higher rates for assuming greater risk. But these devices -- which have been around for a decade but are growing now in popularity -- severely reduce the lenders' risk.
"They own the car and if people aren't paying for it, they want the car back," said Jack Nerad, market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "Borrowers are very frequently pretty resourceful at keeping cars away from lenders, even if they haven't paid for them."
Nerad said the business is growing for two reasons: the technology is now cheaper and people want more expensive cars.
High-Risk Car Loans
It works like this: when a driver's payment is late, a little light or beep signals that it's due. If the money is paid within a day or two, the signal goes away and they keep driving for another month. But if no money is sent to the lender, another warning signal goes on and within 24 hours the car will be disabled.
The manufacturers of these devices emphasize that your car won't just stop in the middle of the road -- once the car is on, it remains on. But when you shut it down, you won't be able to restart it. (Lenders do give car owners a certain number of emergency codes that allow them to start to car for 24 hours so they won't be, say, stranded in a bad neighborhood at night.)
Supporters say customers get loans they might otherwise not get, dealers get to sell more cars and lenders get an added sense of security.
Donald S. Birger is owner and president of InstaCredit Automart, a so-called "buy here, pay here" dealership based in Collinsville, Ill. Virtually every car his dealership sells – more than 3,000 last year – his company finances in-house.
In July of 2007, the dealer started installing starter interrupt devices called "On Time" manufactured by California-based Sekurus. Birger now installs the device on every car he sells as a condition of financing.
"We found it's made our collection process a lot easier," Birger said. "The idea is to keep people in the car, not to repossess the car or stop them from driving."
Most of Birger's customers have poor credit histories and are at high risk of not repaying their loans. InstaCredit used to lose about 20 to 24 percent of the money it loaned out through missed payments or people who simply drove off with the cars never to be heard from again. With the On Time devices, Birger said, his loss rate has been cut to about 10 percent.
He has had to add two employees to handle giving his 4,000 customers with the device a new code every time they make a payment. But even with that cost, and the roughly $275 it costs him for the device and the labor to install it, he is still coming out ahead.
The devices mean less risk for Birger so he is able to make larger loans -- he is now selling cars worth $1,800 to $2,000 more. He said they last longer, have lower mileage and fewer problems, pleasing customers. He's also able to make more money off larger loans.
Car Payment or Cell Phone Bill?
Don Lavoie is president of Sekurus, which manufactures On Time.
Lavoie said his device just makes car payments a higher priority for consumers. He likens it to the cell phone bill: if you don't pay it, you can't make a call.
"It doesn't mean it's more important, it just means you can't use it if you don't pay for it," he said. "Our device just puts car payments ahead of the pack."
His device starts with a green flashing light when it is near the payment due date. The next day it turns yellow then finally red with a beep.
When the owner makes a payment, they get a code, enter it and get another month to drive.
"They're calling the lender instead of the lender calling them," Lavoie said.
For the really "extreme risk" borrowers, Lavoie's company offers a version of On Time with GPS tracking. He said the combination of not being able to drive and the GPS tracking makes it easier if the vehicle has to be repossessed.
As for the Big Brother factor, Lavoie says: the device only tracks them down if they are missing a payment and notes that these are people who wouldn't have received a loan otherwise.
Stan Schwarz, CEO of PassTime, invented a similar product back in 1997, updating it throughout the years. His gives off various chirps and beeps as the payment comes due and the owner enters a code continuing to allow them to drive.
Schwarz has primarily sold his devices to dealerships and is now trying to get big banks, credit unions and other lenders to require them on certain types of loans.
He is now selling 9,000 to 10,000 units a month and expects 30 to 40 percent growth.
"The biggest change is that we're working with more traditional lenders," Schwarz said.
His product includes a GPS function so customers can now logon and see where their car is. It also includes an anti-theft device that the car owner controls.
"A lot of the customers don't live in the best the neighborhoods," Schwarz said.
The device also gives lenders more flexibility. If an owner can only make a partial payment, the lender can give them a code for five days more of driving.
PassTime works with 3,500 dealers now to install its device in more than 700,000 cars across the country.
The key for customers, Schwarz said, is that they can get better cars. Typically, these high-risk customers can only buy $1,500 cars. With his device, he said, that figure climbs to $4,000. Customers are willing to trade a bit of privacy and control for a better vehicle.
"You want the more reliable car," Schwarz said. "You want the car that drives better."