When customers with poor credit buy a vehicle at some used-car lots in Oklahoma, they must agree to an unusual condition: Let the dealer’s finance company attach a Global Positioning System device to the vehicle that tracks their every location.
If the buyer defaults on the loan, then the lender can find the vehicle easily and repossess it. In some cases, the tracking system also allows the company to disable the ignition if the buyer is late on payments.
Consumer advocates say this practice violates people’s privacy, adding that many buyers in the subprime car-loan industry are low-income and feel pressured to sign all of the documents placed in front of them — or they don’t understand what they’re signing. Industry representatives say the tracking devices are legal and fully disclosed, and they allow dealers to serve customers who otherwise couldn’t buy a car.
The use of tracking devices drew national attention recently when state Rep. Mark McBride reported to authorities that he had found a GPS tracker attached to his pickup truck. McBride has sued a private investigations company over the device and other actions, seeking damages. He also introduced House Bill 3260, which would outlaw using a GPS device to track anyone without their knowledge; exceptions are law enforcement agencies and parents tracking a minor child. He accused the wind-power industry of tracking him, but industry officials denied involvement.
While McBride’s experience has a dash of intrigue to it, the used-car tracking shows there is more to the issue than using GPS trackers to spy on politicians’ movements. The availability and low cost of tracking devices shows how easy it is to become an electronic spy. Even cell phones can be turned into tracking devices.
Trucking companies, private investigators, spouses, parents and police are among those who have openly or secretly planted GPS devices on others’ vehicles to track their whereabouts. There is no law in Oklahoma that prohibits the practice, although, as with McBride, people can sue in court alleging invasion of privacy.
The privacy issue can become complicated with many tracking devices used for convenience, business or public safety.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is phasing in a mandate that commercial truckers use electronic logging of their driving hours, which has triggered protests from truckers. Companies offer GPS devices to consumers to track lost luggage or pets or stolen vehicles.
The controversy arises when those being tracked have no knowledge or don’t give their permission, or can’t opt out. The issue grows sharper when vulnerable populations are involved. Should a husband who suspects his wife is cheating on him have the right to plant a GPS device on her car? What if she is a victim of domestic abuse?
In the subprime auto lending industry, businesses use electronic tracking to prompt customers to make their payments on time and to save money if the car needs to be repossessed.
But M. Kathi Rawls, a consumer protection attorney who practices in the Oklahoma City area and represents buyers in lawsuits against auto lenders, said the practice puts the consumer’s privacy at risk.
She said the disclosure consumers get about tracking when purchasing the vehicle is inadequate.
“They will have the consumer sign a form along with 25 other forms,” Rawls said.
She also questioned the legality of using devices that can disable the vehicles until the buyers pay, saying it amounts to a virtual repossession, done without the legal protections of traditional repossession, such as giving borrowers notice.
“They just virtually repossess the car at will,” she said.
In Nevada, legislators passed a law last year that toughens regulations of vehicle tracking systems, including ones that remotely disable vehicles. Tracking data cannot be kept longer than 180 days. A vehicle cannot be disabled until the consumer is in default and at least 30 days late on payments. The law also requires that consumers get notice 48 hours before a car becomes inoperable.
Last year year it was revealed the Federal Trade Commission is investigating tracking technologies used in the subprime auto loan industry. No findings or rulings have been released.
Courts are also applying brakes to law enforcement’s use of GPS devices. Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that police must get a warrant to place a tracking device on a vehicle. The decision echoed a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said car buyers often don’t realize the implications of what they’re signing away.
“Consumers have absolutely no idea that they’re giving away their personal privacy when they drive away with that new car,” he said.
Industry Cites Benefits
Trent Hickey, co-owner of Don Hickey Used Cars and Trucks in Oklahoma City, uses trackers for borrowers with bad credit but doesn’t use systems that disable the vehicles.
He said being able to track a car for repossession strikes the right balance.
“Some of those guys are just ruthless, and I think they’re being a little too hard,” he said of lenders that use remote shutdowns.
Hickey said what he does is sufficient: providing disclosures about the tracking units on vehicles and how tampering with them can lead to default on the purchase agreement.
Hickey said the devices have benefits. For the dealer, they include making repossession easier and reducing the loss rate. Buyers are able to get nicer cars, he said. Hickey also noted he has used tracking to help customers recover stolen vehicles.
Hickey said he has been called to testify in an Oklahoma County murder case in which police used a tracker in making an arrest.
Scott Sturges, who owns an Oklahoma City business that sells trackers to auto lenders, said the purpose to protect lenders’ assets.
“They’re not designed to follow the customer or look up customer information,” he said.
Sturges said dealers who work with “credit-challenged individuals” need some protection.
“These dealers are going out of their way in taking that risk,” he said. “They’re trying to sell a car but trying to help the customer build that credit back.”
Marvin Baker, president of the Oklahoma Private Investigators Association, said he recommends that private investigators not put a tracker on a vehicle unless an owner signs a release.
He noted that there are practical limitations to trackers on vehicles. For example, a private investigator viewing the GPS location won’t necessarily know who is driving the car.
Baker, a Tulsa-area private investigator, said there are other legal considerations as well. For example, going onto someone’s property to put a device on a vehicle would constitute illegal trespassing, he said.
As for the case involving Rep. McBride, Baker said there are unknowns and he’s not passing judgment.
“Who ordered it?” Baker said. “Until I know exactly what’s going on, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”
Sample Tracking Device Agreement
An agreement between a customer and the Oklahoma City auto lender Key Finance, affiliated with The Key dealership in south Oklahoma City, allowed GPS tracking of a 2005 Nissan Sentra purchased on July 14, 2012. It’s now an exhibit in a lawsuit in which the borrower, D.J. Koon, alleges the GPS system’s use of monitoring was an invasion of privacy. In a court response, the lender pointed to language in the agreement that allows GPS monitoring. A Key Finance attorney declined comment for publication.
Reach reporter Ben Botkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 418-6089.