Skip-tracing, the industry term for finding someone, is a natural service that can be offered by process servers. This is because as the process server, you are typically the one who finds out that the last known address is no longer valid, and if you already have a good relationship with the firm that sent you the service, it’s easier for them to have you do the skip trace than to go and find someone else to do it. There are no silver bullets and no one size fits all approaches to skip tracing. The key to being a good skip tracer is having and utilizing multiple tactics and methods, depending what your particular case requires. This article aims to provide an overview of some of the most common tools and hopefully give you some insight as to how you can grow your business by offering a new service or how to refine your skills as an experienced skip tracer.
Databases are great. They have absolutely revolutionized the skip tracing industry and are a must have tool in your toolbox. Full versions of databases are often available only to Private Investigators or Attorneys however, most will have versions available to process servers that contain much of the same information. Databases will often search information from billions of public and private records and combine them into one spot. Records will typically include information from phone companies, credit bureaus, county property records and many other sources. There have been many debates about which databases are “best” but the truth is that all databases have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. The best way to find which databases are right for you is to try them out. Most will provide trial periods that will allow you to “test drive” their product before signing up long term.
While databases are great, the most common mistake in skip tracing amongst Attorneys, Private Investigators and Process Servers alike, is the tendency to rely too much on them. As great as they are, it’s important to recognize that computers are the ones pushing out the information and they do not have the same ability to interpret data as a live person does. Databases can sometimes provide outdated or inaccurate information, so it’s important to try and verify the information you get from a database with as many other sources as you can, before acting on it.
Any real property bought or sold in the United States must be documented at the recorder’s office in the county where the property is located. These records are usually free to view and oftentimes can be accessed online. These records typically contain very useful information including the name of the owner, when they bought or sold the property, an indication if the property is listed as owner occupied or not and the address where the tax bill is being sent. This is all invaluable information to the skip tracer, especially when you’re dealing with a subject who owns multiple properties because often times, the address where all of the various tax bills are being sent, is where they actually live.
In this day and age, people put their entire lives on their internet, it’s actually quite ridiculous- but it can be a gold mine for skip tracers. In our investigations, we have cases blown wide open all the time by information that the subject, or the subject’s family and friends post on social media. Invest some time in setting up some decoy accounts and keep in mind that you will usually be able to see more of a subject’s information if you are already connected with one of their existing connections. So Johnny defendant might not accept your friend request, but his attention hungry sister with 2,000 “friends” probably will. If their information wasn’t already public, then the second level connection may open up access to recent places or events that they may be attending, or you may be able to locate work information. For the tech savvy server and under the right circumstances, some apps are available to help pull metadata out of photos so you can see when and where a picture was taken. *Note that under certain circumstances, sending a friend request or other type of communication to a subject involved in a lawsuit. You should consult with your attorney before making any attempts to contact a subject directly.*
Post Master Locates
This is an oldie but a goodie and it doesn’t cost you a dime. Basically, there is a form you can fill out and submit to the post office wherein the post office is required to tell you if a person is receiving mail at an address, if they are having their mail forwarded, or if they are not at the address provided. Usually you would need to fax or mail the form in, but some post offices will allow you to walk it in and handle it the same day. In addition, that same form can be used to obtain the physical address the post office has on file for a P.O. box holder. A copy of this form can be found by clicking here.
Asking Good Questions
Usually, after a person has moved, the new occupants or neighbors will have some kind of information about where the person went. The question is, how do you get it? They key is in asking good questions. More often than not, people will give up all kinds of information if you just ask. If someone tells you that the subject has moved, ask when, where, if they have a cell phone number, if they had kids, if they had any friends in the neighborhood who might know where they are at. Get the phone number for the landlord and call him, because he probably has a forwarding address for returning the security deposit. Sure, some people are a pain and won’t provide any information, but it doesn’t hurt to ask and often, if you’re diligent in your questioning, you’ll find nuggets of information that can be used to help locate your subject.
A pretext is a fancy word for a lie. The purpose with pretexting is to get someone to divulge information to you that they wouldn’t otherwise provide. More than one unsuspecting defendant has unknowingly provided a skip tracer with their own address. We know of drug dealers that have given up their home addresses, children who have sold out their parents with the hope of getting something for free and neighbors that have dished details on each other thinking they were helping their friend get a new job. There are many different pretexts that can be quite effective and if you think you can get someone to believe it, you may want to try it out. You may even try doing the pretext on a random phone number just to work the bugs out. A good pretexter many times can also obtain information from businesses who may have information about your subject (i.e. their work, utility company, local pizza delivery places etc…).
A few cautions about pretexting. Don’t impersonate a law enforcement officer, don’t pretext to get info on any protected records (i.e. phone & bank), don’t do anything too outlandish and always use a phone that can’t be traced back to you. There are plenty of apps that let you spoof your phone number or set up an untraceable number that rings to your phone. Just test them out before using them. *Note that under certain circumstances, having any kind of contact with a subject involved in a lawsuit without their attorney present could be a violation of law. You should consult with your attorney before making any attempts to contact a subject directly.*
Have anything you’ve done that you’ve found to be effective? Have any good skip tracing stories you’d like to share? Comment below.
Joseph Jones is a licensed Private Investigator and the Vice President of Bosco Legal Services, Inc.