'Camera cowboys' repossessing cars

Published May 27, 2013


Hundreds of cars are being repossessed by agents – employed by banks – who drive around in unmarked cars with number plate-recognition cameras mounted on top.

Banks and the owner of the technology claim they are acting within the law, but the board of sheriffs and transport commentators says the repossessions are illegal.

Those who work in the debtcollection business call them the “camera cowboys”.

They are a type of bounty hunter who look for cars on the road that are targeted for repossession, and when they spot them, get owners to “volunteer” their property to them.


The cameras are part of a relatively new technology known as the International Vehicle Identification Desk (Ivid) system.

Sheriffs and traffic experts say the recovery of vehicles by anyone who is not a sheriff of the court or a police officer is illegal, and unsuspecting motorists who are approached are not aware of their rights.

According to sources within the debt-collection industry and who did not want to be named, these cars are pulling off vehicles marked for repossession, printing out a court order at the scene, which they present to the driver, before confiscating the car.

The vehicles are then taken to auction houses, where the “repossessor” is given a commission of between R5000 and R15 000 a vehicle. According to sources at the auction houses, the most successful “camera cowboys” bring in between five and six vehicles a day.

Ivid director Lee Dutton said they provide the hardware that recognises licence plates. This data is loaded onto a server with information supplied by the financial institution.

He said the system does not have direct access to eNatis.

But Dutton said it was illegal for vehicles to be pulled off the road as only police officers are allowed to do this, and they monitor their agents to make sure this does not happen.

Instead, he said, when their drivers trace a car, they wait for the vehicle to stop, then approach the driver. Dutton said there had been a few cases, however, where they get complaints that motorists have been pulled over.

When this happens, Dutton said, they pull those drivers off the road.


Dutton said agents would not prevent a driver from driving off; do not chase vehicles that speed off; would not approach vehicles with a woman alone in the car; the handover of keys must be voluntary; they must offer the driver a lift home; and they do not use blue lights.

WesBank spokesman Rudolf Mahoney said they were using the Ivid system as a joint initiative with Business Against Crime, the SAPS and other banks. He said they have used the technology for 14 months, and WesBank is recovering 90 vehicles a month.

He said no vehicles were pulled off the road and vehicles fitted with the automated number plate-recognition technology scanned number plates of stationary vehicles in public places.

Mahoney said the number plates were tested against SAPS and other databases to see if the vehicle was stolen; fraudulently financed; had fraudulent instalment takeovers; was guilty of eNatis fraud; or were clients who have not handed over their vehicles despite receiving court orders to do so.

But the South African Board of Sheriffs said it was illegal for anyone but a sheriff of the court to hand people court orders and repossess their belongings.

Spokeswoman Nikiwe Vuba said sheriffs are regulated by statute, have a code of conduct, cannot mislead the public or misrepresent themselves, and cannot make unjustified threats.

Howard Dembovsky, from the Justice Project South Africa, said that not only do court orders have to be delivered by a sheriff, they must be original and bear the stamp of the court and these agents, and the companies who hire them are doing so illegally.

“No one is saying that people who don’t pay their debts should be allowed to retain assets, but there are legal processes and these must be followed and that is that.

“These agents may be charged criminally with a number of crimes, and the excuse that people ‘willingly surrender to them’ is moot, given the fact that they are acting unlawfully,” Dembovsky said.

The AA’s Gary Ronald was very concerned to hear that civilians had access to people’s private information and wondered who regulated this type of technology. -The Star

Related Topics: