SCRS Urging Auto Body Shops to Help Consumers Remove Personal Data from Total Loss Vehicles

Shop owner Ron Reichen said some 360-surround cameras capture images even when the vehicle is not in operation, potentially monitoring activity in a shop where the vehicle is being repaired.

Auto body shops have long given customers whose vehicle has been declared a total loss a chance to get any of their personal belongings from the vehicle before it is towed away. 

But what about all their digital personal information contained in that vehicle?

A Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) committee is working to raise awareness among shops about assisting customers releasing a vehicle by ensuring their personal data is deleted from the infotainment system.

“We found that most shops don’t know how to deal with this, or don’t have protocols in place yet, so we thought it would be worth addressing from a collision repair perspective,” Amber Alley, vice chairman of SCRS, said during the association’s open board meeting this summer.

The committee pointed to an SCRS Quick Tip video that explains why this is an important step. The systems may be storing information such as the owners' contact names, addresses and phone numbers; garage door opener codes; and copies of texts, emails and call history.

“Phone syncing really is resulting in the car becoming like someone’s cell phone on wheels,” Alley said. “Pretty much anything on your phone could be getting recorded onto some module inside the car, particularly the infotainment system.”

Alley said the committee hopes to develop some best practices related to this for shops---possibly including sample wording for a customer authorization form---but in the meantime, she said the steps involved appear to be more commonly found in consumer-focused materials from the automakers rather than in the OEM repair procedures.

“So as a shop, when looking for this information, I would suggest you start with the owner’s manual and customer-based materials from the car manufacturer,” she said. 

The committee noted it’s not just a vehicle’s infotainment system that may include personal customer information. Oregon shop owner Ron Reichen shared images from a vehicle’s 360-surround camera captured even while the vehicle was not in operation as part of the vehicle’s security system. 

That data could include images that share information the customer would not like a future owner of the vehicle to have---such as where they drop off their kids at school or daycare---and also could include information from the vehicle’s time in the shop, such as images of license plates of other vehicles in for repairs.

Even if a vehicle with such a system isn’t a total loss and is repaired and returned to the customer, Reichen noted, “It’s monitoring all the activities going in the shop. The client is going to know what your housekeeping is like, when you start work and when you quit work, were you working on the car when you told them you were working on the car. There’s another set of eyes there.”

Shops may want to determine if such a system can be put into “service mode”---with the customer’s permission---to avoid, as Reichen once experienced, a Tesla owner calling over the weekend to say he’d been alerted by his vehicle app that his car door was ajar in the shop.

The committee even discussed whether clearing data is a service shops could also offer their customers in other circumstances, such as prior to the sale of a vehicle.

“I think that would be a great idea,” Reichen said. “People know how to upload [their information] and get so accustomed to using it, but each one has its own nuances on how to remove all that.”

Alley agreed.

“Any time you can reconnect with that customer and build that long-term relationship and trust, when you’re offering more value than just replacing a fender, it’s always a good idea,” she said.

A “Who Pays for What?” survey of U.S. shops this summer found more than one-third of shops (35%) said they are paid always or most of the time by the eight largest U.S. insurers when they charge for the labor to erase a customer’s data from a vehicle declared a total loss. That had more than doubled from the first time the survey asked about the procedure a year earlier. Despite this, more than four in five shops acknowledge not having sought to be paid for this work---likely because most shops aren’t doing it.

On a related note, Reichen and Alley at the SCRS meeting said shops may want to caution their customers about plugging their phone into a rental vehicle’s infotainment system.

“I’ve had past phones show up on rental cars that I’ve rented,” Alley said. “The system asked me if I was five other people. That infotainment system is storing that information, and it will continue to be stored in there unless someone goes in and deletes it.”

Reichen agreed most customers won’t think about their information being captured when they plug their phone into a rental vehicle.

“I think we as repairers have an obligation to communicate that to the customer,” he said.

Alley also shared an experience she had that led her to think it’s not just customer information shops may want to remove from vehicles. A trip she’d made to El Salvador about five years ago included visiting some body shops there. It’s not uncommon, she said, for those shops to acquire and repair total loss vehicles from the U.S. In and on some of those vehicles, she said, she saw “window tags from the shop, customer last names and windshield tags slapped on the vehicle by the insurance company or the auction.”

No matter where a total loss vehicle processed by a shop ends up, “That’s traceable information right on those tags,” Alley said. “Personally, I don’t want these cars tracked back to our facility. We’ve had someone call us two years later about a total, saying, ‘I found this paperwork in the car from your shop. Can you go over what was done,’ or asking us if we have old parts. So we’re recommending that you clean out the [total loss] car thoroughly of your shop information before it’s released.”

After her shop’s customers remove their belongings from such vehicles, she said, the shop removes any windshield or key tags, paperwork or seat covers that identify the shop, and makes sure customers haven’t left things without realizing those items may include their address, banking information, etc.

Also speaking at the meeting, Danny Gredinberg of the Database Enhancement Gateway said he had once collected his own items out of a car he was selling, but overlooked the toll road transponder sticker on the windshield.

“Six months later, I got a bill from the toll company, telling me the car had been rolling through the tolls,” Gredinberg said. “I ended up paying almost $500 in toll fees. They were willing to work with me on that because I had a bill of sale for the vehicle, but it was a good reminder to remove even little stickers.”

John Yoswick

John Yoswick is a freelance writer and Autobody News columnist who has been covering the collision industry since 1988, and the editor of the CRASH Network... Read More

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