Use of electronic repo devices could expand beyond cars

On a Gibbs family trip to Topeka, the littlest passenger wouldn't shut up.

"Beep-beep-beep," recalled Michelle Gibbs, mimicking the palm-sized device installed by her used-car dealer under the dash of the Honda Accord. "Try driving back for two hours with three kids in the car and that sound: Beep-beep-beep.

"It's very annoying, but for the most part, it’s the best thing to happen to us."

The beeping was a reminder that 24 hours remained before a car-loan payment had to be made — or else the vehicle would fail to start.

The Gibbses made it home to Blue Springs, punched in a one-time emergency code provided by the dealer to keep the car operable and then drove to the dealership to deliver the delinquent payment.

In five years, said Michelle Gibbs, it was the one car payment she and her husband, Robert, let slip; the dreaded "disabler" has forced them to keep up. "I think it would be nice to do it for other products," she said.

"Electronic repossession," it's called.

Small used-car lots that finance their own sales are driving the practice for now, but it could become commonplace, say consumer groups. Increasingly, satellites and programmable timers are capable of shutting down a home’s utilities, computer software, appliances and leased machinery if overdue bills aren’t paid.

"Since you're seeing it done more regularly with cars, we may already be deep into the slippery slope," said John Van Alst, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center. "A lot of people couldn't get by without their cars."