SOUTHINGTON — A repossession company is using police technology to scan license plates and find cars for seizure.
A vehicle outfitted with license plate readers visited Southington and scanned license plates in the Walmart parking lot earlier this month. After receiving calls from residents, police said they found out the car was from Northeast Storage & Transport of Enfield.
The company declined to comment Friday.
State and local police departments, including Southington, have car-mounted camera systems that scan passing license plates, storing the plate number, date and time of the scan. The scans are matched to COLLECT, a police database of license plates, which can identify stolen cars.
The car in Southington was equipped with a system which appears identical to those on police cars.
Southington police Deputy Chief William Palmieri said private companies use their own database of license plates when searching for cars to repossess.
“They can’t get access to the COLLECT system,” he said.
Andrew Steele saw a blue Toyota with license plate reader cameras attached to the front and back in the Walmart parking lot. He is accustomed to seeing them on police vehicles, but was surprised that the vehicle didn’t have any markings and the driver didn’t wear a uniform.
The car went up and down the rows of parked cars.
"I don’t know what they’re doing with my license plate information. With a private company, you just don’t know."
“They made it a point to go into every row,” Steele said. “There were a couple of points he stopped and looked at the computer (mounted inside the car).”
Steele believes his car’s license plate was scanned.
“I don’t know what they’re doing with my license plate information,” he said. “With a private company, you just don’t know.”
Steele was also surprised that a company would go to a private parking lot to gather information.
Repo companies active in town
Northeast Storage & Transport is one of several companies active in Southington. Others that have contacted police about repossessions are Collateral Recovery Service, of North Branford, Auto Lock Unlimited, of East Hartford, and Skyline Recovery Service, of Waterbury. Calls to all three were not returned on Friday and it’s unclear if the companies use license plate readers, though Skyline’s website shows vehicles in their fleet equipped with license plate readers.
Before repossessing a car, a company will usually contact the Police Department and provide the repossession documents to avoid confusion if the driver reports a vehicle theft. Palmieri said there have been 68 repossessions reported to police since July 2019.
Concern from ACLU
License plate readers can scan and document locations for thousands of vehicles per day, creating large amounts of data on where drivers were at what time. The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about how long this data is stored and who has access to it when collected by police departments.
In addition to the plates of stolen vehicles, the system can alert an officer to a scan of a license plate connected to people on various watch lists or sex offender registries.
David McGuire, ACLU of Connecticut executive director, raised concerns earlier this month about the possible purchase of an automatic license plate reader system by Wallingford police. He said the scans are surveillance on citizens who aren’t under suspicion of a crime.