Definition of Skip Tracing
: A “Skip” is a debtor that a creditor cannot locate or contact for collection purposes. A creditor typically identifies a debtor as a Skip if at least two of the following has occurred:
1. Mail returned from last known address
2. Period of non-payment and delinquent account
3. Unable to contact at any known telephone numberHistory of the Skip Tracer.
As long as there have been debts there have been people who have not paid them as agreed, and as long as there have been people with debts and legs, there have been Skips.
In the old days, skip tracers primary tools were the information available on credit applications provided by the debtor and others and the skip tracer’s ability to lie. Let’s face it - none of our friends and few of our relatives will answer the question “Where can I find John Jones so I can sue him?” with a factual answer. Many of us will answer the question “Where can I find John Jones so I can give him this check I have for him?” with John’s address and as many phone numbers as we can think of. In the “old days” of skip tracing this was a large part of Skip Tracing, simply because that’s all we (yes, I used to do this) had to work with. There was no Internet, and there were no data mines. All I had was the ability to sound like “Dr Rosenberg” at “County Hospital” saying “her kid’s been hit by a car and we need a verbal consent to operate or the kid may die.”
“Before the Internet, collection agencies approached skiptracing very simply—they reviewed any consumer information they already had and then picked up the phone to call the consumer’s relatives, friends and employer in an effort to track down that consumer. Skiptracers had to have very personable telephone voices, they had to enjoy working with people and they had to love puzzles. And while those skills still play an important role in today’s skiptracing environment, there are a number of additional options and challenges facing modern skiptracers.”
(source: “The Art of the Search” by Anne Rosso, Collector Magazine, January 31, 2006 (published by American Collectors Association))
Fast Forward to the 21st Century. In the data age, many public records have been transformed into a digital format and made available on the Internet. Add to that the ability of computers to store and cross-reference huge amounts of information and you now have the emergence of the “Data Mine” - a figurative place (usually the combination of several or many internet addresses) where a lot of information about you can be found. We’ll look at a data Mine later. The important part now is that a Skip tracer can have a lot of information (some of it accurate, some of it not, some of it relevant, some of it not) about you in a short period of time. What used to take me weeks to put together about a debtor now takes minutes.
“‘Today,’ Brown said, ‘skiptracing is 49 percent art, 49 percent science and 2 percent pure bulldog determination.’”
(source: Ron Brown, president of Collection Services International in Oklahoma City and co–author of Manhunt: The Book
as quoted by Anne Russo in “The Art of the Search”, Collector Magazine, January 31, 2006 (published by American Collectors Association))1
The Art that Brown speaks of is the ability to get information (often if not usually through subterfuge) from people, the science is the ability to Data Mine and use the information obtained, and the Bulldog Determination is the patience to wade through the Mined Information to find what is factual and useful.Costs of a Skip
The costs of a Skip, while difficult to determine exactly, have the potential of being very costly, both in terms of dollars lost and in terms of dollars spent trying to recover the lost dollars. While part of the skip tracing procedure is computerized and automated (and therefore can be done quickly and cheaply) the more critical parts (the analyzing the electronic data, sifting through it to determine its potential and then using that data to actually locate the skip) can be very time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. Accurint, one of the principal companies offering data mining services to the Collection Industry, puts it well on their web site:
“ The key is locating the account holder. Currently, 35% of delinquent debtors move annually, and half of all accounts received for collections require some form of skip tracing, resulting in a recovery rate of between 15% and 35%. From 1995 to 2003, credit card collection charge-offs were 58 billion dollars and are growing at the rate of 12% per year.”
)How people skip
: Since the definition of a skip is simply “Subscriber (meaning member of Credit Bureau) cannot locate borrower”, the only real requirements of a “skip” status would be the lender does not have current contact information on the borrower (address or phone number) and the borrower is delinquent in an obligation to the lender. Given those two simple elements, one may wonder just how easy it is to become a ‘skip” That question is best answered by looking into the reason a person is a ‘skip” in the first place. There are two types of “skips”: Intentional and Unintentional.
An Unintentional skip is typically a person who moved from residence “a” to residence “b” and with all that had to be done simply forgot to notify a lender and didn’t leave a forwarding address with the post office. Many lenders send their mail with the notation “address correction requested” on the envelope. This is a request to the post Office to provide them with a forwarding address the Post office may have on file in the event their customer moves. If the post Office has one, they will provide it (for a fee). If the post office cannot provide one, they return the letter to the creditor and the creditor has a “skip” on their hands. Unintentional skips tend to come forward relatively quickly and notify their lenders of their new address. Once that happens, the person is no longer a ‘skip”.
The Intentional Skip is a whole different person. This person moves and deliberately fails to notify creditors. Sometimes, rather than leave no trail for the skip tracer to follow, this person will lay down a false trail - sending the bill collector to places the debtor knows are false. The debtor in this instance is attempting to lose the Collector and fully intends not to pay the debt. It is for this person the Skip tracer spends the most effort, capital and time.Tools of the Skip Tracer - Internet Tools
I have mentioned Data Mines, and with the merger of Accurint and Lexis Nexus, that company has unquestionably become a major player in the skip tracer’s resource book. The Credit Bureaus are another important tool. The fact is, the Internet has become a real wealth of information about people - information that is stored in thousands of different places. Data Mine companies take all these resources and gather all the information that can be found about the subject from all available accessible databases (yes, there are some databases that the Data Miners cannot get to) and place it all in one file, which is then sold to the Skip Tracer. One site lists about 100 different databases that can be accessed I will get into this aspect of Skip Tracing later.- Debtor Provided Tools
: In many cases, the debtor himself provides a resourceful skip tracer with the tools needed to find him. The principal one is the actual credit application. Obviously, the more information on the credit application the more tools the skip tracer has. People tend to be pretty honest on credit applications for two major reasons: first is the concern that dishonesty will not get them the requested credit and the second is that material false statements on a credit application constitutes sufficient reason for that debt not to be discharged in a Bankruptcy.
On the application, the most useful information a debtor provides are the Social Security Number and the “References”. These references are seldom if ever checked before issuing credit, and are always gone over by the collector and skip tracer. Since it is unlikely the reference will give up much information voluntarily when asked “where can I find Marvin so I can sue him?” the skip tracer will need to bet this information through a process called “pretexting”. In simpler terms, pretexting is lying. It is telling the subject a lie in order to elicit that person’s cooperation in locating the target. The web site “Skip-Tips” (http://www.skip-tips.com/skip-tips.htm
) lists several pretexts, but obviously this is not an exhaustive list:
“ You would be surprised how much information people reveal when they are on hold, or when they think they are on hold. Instead of putting the caller on hold, put them on mute. Tell them you have to check something with your supervisor, and mute the call for two minutes. People will often tip their hand and divulge critical information while they think you have them on hold.
Consequently, be careful of what information you divulge while someone puts you on hold. Hit your mute button just to be sure no one is listening.”
(source: Skip Trace Portal, http://www.pimall.com/nais/SKIPTRACE.HTM
“You are interviewing your skip's mother and she claims to have not spoke to her son in years. Ask her if she has spoke to him since the baby. Mom is either going to ask a million questions about the baby, or she is going to deny that he had a baby. Either way you have found out the truth about her talking to skip. You can also make the same play by asking about skip's DUI last month.”
“If you know your subject recently moved: Mail an empty envelope with the subject's address and your return address. On the envelope print, "DO NOT FORWARD. ADDRESS CORRECTION REQUESTED." After a week, you will receive the letter back to your return address with a sticker showing the forwarding address your subject filed with the post office. Note: This only works if your skip filed a change of address with the post office within the last year.”
“Asset Search Pretext Call
Skip Tracer: Telephones the consumer and says, "Hello, this is Bob Duncan with your electric company. I am calling because your account is 2 months past due and your electricity is scheduled for cutoff on Tuesday."
Consumer: "I shouldn't be past due. I made a payment last month and another payment this month."
Skip Tracer: "How did you make these payments? Did you mail in a check or money order, or did you make a payment directly at one of our payment centers?"
Consumer: "I mailed in a check for both payments."
Skip Tracer: "I will try to locate these two payments and get them credited to your account right now. What bank were the checks drawn on?
Consumer: "Second National Bank"
Skip Tracer: "What is the account number?"
Consumer: "Let me look, Ok, the account number is 8675309"
Skip Tracer: "I have located your payments and credited them to your account. The two payments were misapplied, and I have corrected the problem. You are not showing as past due at this time. I apologize for the inconvenience, and thank you for your time."
Prior to GLB most asset searches started with a phone call similar to the above script. Post GLB this phone call would clearly be illegal as the skip tracer is misrepresenting their true identity and purpose.”
One site, Repo-Links.com offers the skip tracer advice that it ADMITS is illegal, giving us an insight into what some Skip Tracers think of the laws:
“#1 Skip Tracing Tip
"Utility Company Searches"
Call the Electric company where you suspect your debtor has moved to, and tell them that you are attorney Robert O'Neil. Explaining that Mr. & Mrs. Debtor have retained your services to represent them in a bankruptcy. You are calling the Electric company to ensure that all of Mr. and Mrs. Debtor's accounts are included in the filing. You have their social security numbers and need a listing of their accounts, current and past due.
Don't ever make that phone call cause it would be illegal to impersonate an attorney. It would also be illegal to:
Call the Electric company where you suspect your debtor has moved to, and tell them that you are Mr. Debtor. You are in the process of refinancing your house, and there is a past due account on your credit report from their company showing up. Tell them you live in another city that they do not service. So you are curious as to what this bill is for. They will ask you for your social security number and check for any accounts under that social.”
Even a little bit of information can undermine the skip’s attempts to get away. This is from repo-links.com:
“Phone Break Tip 1
Many times a repossessor will have a phone number for their skip and need the address that phone number rings at. This is called a "Phone Break" or a "Phone Reverse Search"
If you dial 00 on your phone you will get a long distance operator, tell them you want a reverse listing for the phone number you are trying to break. If the phone number is a listed phone number, the operator will give you the name and address for that phone number. Then you can repossess the car you are skip tracing.
This is a legal way for a repossessor to break a phone number.”
This site also counsels skip-tracers as to what is NOT legal (ostensibly to warn them away, but we all know it is to give the skip tracer the ability to violate the laws - after all, if it is illegal to do it, why tell how to do it?
“Phone Break Tip 2
Be Advised, It would be illegal to call up the phone number you are trying to break and tell them that you are the are a repairman working for the phone company. Explaining that a truck hit a telephone poll and you are repairing the phone lines. Ask them if their phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx. Change the last 2 digits from their phone number to some other number. They should correct you and give you their phone number. You would then say that you see that line here also. Ask them what address that number is supposed to ring at. 9 out of 10 times they will give you their address.
Remember, it would be illegal for a repossessor to make a call like that.”
While what is found on the credit application may be very obsolete by the time the Skip Tracer gets to look at it, it is common for the debtor himself to leave a very wide open trail that leads the Skip Tracer right to him. Our society has become more and more technology based, and the passage of the Patriot Act requires Financial institutions (very broadly interpreted) to “verify the customer’s identity”.- Personality Tools
: This would entail any professional licenses or know hobbies that the skip tracer may utilize knowledge of in order to locate the skip. This author’s information can be found in databases that are as varied as:
IRS Licensed Enrolled Agents
Licensed Airplane Pilots
Little League Umpires
Owners of a Certain Breed of Dog
The knowledge of any of these would provide the skip tracer with additional information that would help in locating the author. 3. How Does the Skip Tracer Trace?
The art of skip tracing involves two basis steps - background research to locate a likely candidate to be the target and pretexting to actually locate the target and gather collection-valuable information.Internet Skip Tracing tools:
The days of the collector and/or skip tracer parking themselves outside your door to follow the debtor to work are long gone. In the 21st Century and beyond, skip tracing is done from the skip tracer’s desk, and the primary tool is the Internet. The primary options on the Internet are search engines that promise to search hundreds of databases to help you find that long lost love, and Data Mines.
As an experiment in writing this chapter, the author subscribed to one of the on line search engine sites ( http://www.web-detective.com
). After paying the $20.00 fee I began using their search engine links (the ones included with the service, not the ones that charged additional fees). I tried to skip trace myself. The results were dismal - I could not locate myself using that site. Not a single link or resource would show my current address (which I had been living at for 8 months and I know was on all three Credit Bureaus, as well as the County Recorder and several other sites). In all fairness, I was able to find myself at my previous address, as well as over two dozen people who shared the same name as I do. I do not use a middle initial, so a skip tracer using this tool would not be able to narrow the search down using that information. For an additional fee (for EACH of them) I could get more information on all these people, including myself. To say that this method of skip tracing is useless is an understatement, since the costs and time involved in looking at all the “hits” would have been prohibitive for a skip tracer trying to find his targets quickly and cheaply. This economic fact of life is, in fact, the Skip Tracer’s Achilles heel. More on that later.
As a further experiment, I engaged a Private Detective to use whatever tools a Skip Tracer would have available to him (meaning no databases available only to Government or Law Enforcement). While the Private Detective did in fact locate me at my present address and indirectly identified my business and locate the fact that I own an airplane, the results weren’t all that much better, considering the skip tracing cost the Private Detective around $200.00 and took over two hours of his time. For that type of investment to be worthwhile to a debt Skip tracer the amount of the debt would have to be huge.
The Detective used two Data Mines - Locate Plus and Choicepoint.Locate Plus:
This Data Mine has some serious problems with time. They update every six months, and even then the data is about a year old. In searching for myself, here are the results of a Private Detective using Locate Plus:
Using the search criteria of my name, County and City of residence, Locate Plus found 7 people who share my name. I was one of them. Close reading of the time lines would show that three had moved to other cities (two in 1995, one in 1996). In my listing there are 5 variations of a prior address, three variations of their incorrect present address and an address in a State I have never lived in. Following my instructions to only zero in on the correct “me” , the detail on the correct target revealed an address obsolete by 8 months and a telephone number obsolete by 4 years. The residents at the address consisted of myself, my wife, one of or two sons and someone I never heard of in my life. Another address showed me with a different name and a different spouse, and five other people I never heard of. The address mining went back at least twenty years, including the address of my business in New York - which I had sold fifteen years earlier. Listed at that address was the buyer of my business, his wife, their child and a half a dozen people I never heard of. The residence address in New York (which I left ten years prior) showed eighteen ( ) People I never heard of living there. Skip tracer - enjoy yourself - all these leads lead to dead ends.
To its credit, Locate Plus at least told the skip tracer my gender and race, by pulling up a six year old traffic ticket.
This wealth of misinformation and no information cost the skip tracer $18.00 as a flat fee.Choicepoint
works a bit differently - it charges the skip tracer each time they seek more information. The search results yielded 15 names of which none were at my current address and 9 were at my previous address. The reason for this is the way Choicepoint gives results - it lists each type of hit individually. Information from each of the three Credit Bureaus accounts for three of the 9 hits. This much information cost $5.00
Once the skip tracer zeroes in on a likely target, he is charged additional fees each time he “drills down” to get a better look at the actual information. The Detective spent $100 in these “drill down” fees - far above what any skip tracer would spend except on the largest balances. What did the Detective get for all this money?
To be fair Choicepoint did find me. It had my current address - but not my telephone number or Social Security number. Choicepoint truncates the last 4 digits of the Social Security Number, which will create problems for the skip tracer. Let’s see what Choicepoint found:
Name: According to Choicepoint, my Middle Initial is either A, H, S or O or I don’t have one. Choicepoint also blended my professional designation (EA) onto my last name and, adding to the confusion, has my older son’s name listed as mine also.
Social Security Number: Take your pick - mine or my son’s. We both share each other’s. Keep in mind I have never done anything that would blend my son’s credit file into mine. We do not share the same first or middle name, and I have not cosigned or have any joint accounts with him. Making the issue even more cloudy, two other people’s names come in sharing both our Social Security Numbers - people I have never heard of.
Year of Birth : Take your pick - 1951 or 1952.
Address: Correct for 25 years, along with the same addresses Locate Plus had in states I have never lived in.
Telephone Number: They had my correct number, but listed to my business name (which it is not).
Real Estate Transactions: They had the full details of the sale of my prior home and purchase of my current one.
Pilot’s License: Choicepoint found it, but did not find my airplane.
Business Affiliations: Four out of nine were mine.
Relatives: Choicepoint found my father who died seven years earlier. It also found his wife (who I have not seen or spoken to in over 20 years), my wife, both our sons, someone who I presume is my stepsister who I have never met and my brother (but at an address he has not lived at in over 15 years) . Not particularly useful since my immediate family and I share the same address.
Neighbors: At my current address Choicepoint provided the names, addresses and phone numbers of six people who I have never met. At my immediate past address there were six names and phone numbers, only one of whom I know.
When you fill out a sweepstakes entry to get that free vacation weekend, the frequent buyer club card to get discounts at the pharmacy or supermarket, or just about anything else, you are providing valuable information that will eventually get into a “data Mine” - the computer files of a company that wants to know literally everything about you. In turn, they will sell this information to whomever wants to purchase it. One of the purchasers will be a Skip Tracer. The eagerness of a Data Mine to accumulate information, without regard to its accuracy, is its Achilles Heel. How to Skip
The Collection Trades and Conventions are chock-full of seminars and information teaching a skip tracer the latest tips, tools, techniques and scams to help locate skipped debtors. With the advent of the Internet, some people are posting ways for people to skip - giving a potential skip some ideas on how to “pull it off” While the authors of this book do not condone or advocate any of these techniques, studying them gives some interesting insights into the age-old cat and mouse game of Skip and Tracer. Some of this advice comes from the Skip Tracers themselves, who are now being retained to actually help people become skips Some of them even have web sites with useful information on them.
If you are looking to disappear, leave life behind, or just start over and not have people from your past find you, there is hope with a little misinformation, disinformation and reformation it can be done.
Some people believe that they can just pick up and go, the problem with that is if someone is looking for you, they have your whole past and present to search. They have your family and friends to contact, store memberships, airlines, car rentals, banks, credit card statements, subscriptions, library records, phone records, emails, IP addresses, the list is as long as the person’s imagination and budget.
A little homework before you go, see my three steps to disappearing.
The Three Keys To Disappearing
This is the act of taking all the information that exists about you and changing it. Look in your wallet besides the credit cards. Any one of the membership cards you have can assist a skip tracer in finding you. Bookstores, they know your hopes, your dreams, fears and medical problems; they keep track of every book you buy if you have a discount card. By investigating your name and zip code through your frequent flyer account, someone can very quickly learn all about your travel records. Car rental companies list your account by phone number: this can tell us where you last rented a car. The list goes on and on.
What you need to do is to go into your account and deviate your name, then deviate your address, then deviate your phone number. Repeat the process until it is a confusing mess to the potential tracer.
This is the act of taking your personal information and creating false leads. We have you fly to Vegas, rent a car and actually got to a realtor and apply for an apartment. We know that the realtor will run a credit report on you. We know that the person looking for you will run your credit record and see an inquiry from a company in Vegas and start looking there. Your goal is to eat up his budget.
Open a checking account at a local bank. If you notice that almost every bank you walk into uses a service that will list any overdrafts you make at the bank, then be careful because that very same service can also list where you applied for a bank account. A very crafty investigator will locate your inquiry in Vegas and search there.
It is against the law for people to pretext banks, however, some people still do. With
your new account, you leave a balance of $300.00; you recieve an ATM card. That ATM card is turned over to me and when some of my clients or friends go traveling, I give them the card. They make an ATM withdrawal in London. The person who is now checking that account is looking for you in London. Three months later a withdrawal from your account is made in Omaha. Once again, we eat up the budget of the individual who is searching for you.
This is the act that takes you from here to there with no leads. Reformation depends on you and how much money you have. We create forms of contact with people you need to stay close to. Contact is typically maintained through prepaid cell phones or prepaid calling cards.
Misinformation, disinformation and reformation equal MDR, which also means, money, disappearing and relaxing. My advice, take it slow and do your homework. Every mistake leads to someone finding you.
(source: Frank M Ahearn, “Three Steps to Disappearing”, http://www.escapeartist.com/efam/70/Advice_From_A_Skip_Tracer.html
This very informative essay is found on the web site of a former Skip Tracer (Frank M. Ahearn) who claims twenty years experience as a Skip Tracer.
My conversation with the Private Detective progressed to the following question: “If you were to try to become a Skip, what would you do, knowing what you know about how Skip Tracers work?” His answer was most revealing.
At the end of the previous section, I stated “ The eagerness of a Data Mine to accumulate information, without regard to its accuracy, is its Achilles Heel.” The more erroneous data in your file (about half of what was in mine was simply wrong) the harder it will be for the Skip Tracer to find the correct information. Since almost all of the information in your file gets there because YOU put it there, the answer is simple - live your life so that no correct information gets in and make sure that plenty of incorrect information gets in there. Here’s how:
Whenever you apply for credit, you are asked certain questions all the time. Those questions are: Name, Social Security Number and Address. You want your Data Mine file to be filled with as much incorrect information as possible, but certain things must be given correctly so as to ensure that the incorrect information finds the right file (yours). The solution is simple:
Always provide your correct name and Social Security Number. You don’t have to mess around with this - the data Mine will do it for you (as they did with mine - I have ten different names and two different Social Security Numbers attached to my file as ME, and I did NOTHING to create that). It’s the ADDRESS you will be feeding into the Data Mine with great regularity that will constantly change.
The Detective confided to me that this technique is sometimes used in the Witness Protection Program to throw people who would assassinate witnesses off the track from finding the witness. Obviously, the witness is given a new identity, and the authors do NOT suggest taking on a false identity. Your name and your Social Security number are yours. Your mailing address can change often. This fact of life is the weakness in the Skip Tracer’s digital arsenal and your strength.
There is no reason to be concerned that the addresses you choose to bombard the data Miners with be accurate or even exist. Once again, the weakness in te system here is that all addresses fed into the data mine acre presumed to be accurate, and the data Miners make no effort to verify them. Choice Point’s programs are geared to identify obvious false addresses like Private mailbox Companies (PMB’s) like the UPS Store. Locate Plus is not so programmed. Even so, Choice Point will still accept the address and merely identify it as “suspect”. Nonexistent addresses can be fed into the system ad infinitum. Therefore, the following addresses, while totally fictitious, will be accepted by the data Mine as true:
1352 E 45 Street, New York City (in the middle of the East River)
2284 W 84 Street, New York City (in the Hudson River)
1313 Mockingbird Lane, Lake Wobegone MN (Street Address of the Munsters, fictitious town made up by Garrison Keilor)
135 W 35 Street, Chicago IL (approximately 3rd base at Wrigley Field)
You get the idea. What was the address of Barbie's house?
Addresses can be generated by using a site like Zillow (www.zillow.com
). The authoir generated them by logging onto Zillow ands starting at his home address and performing the following steps:
1. On the scale bar on the left, scale the map to “USA”
2. Drag the map by right clicking on it to somewhere far away from where you live. I went from Arizona to New York
3. Zoom in gradually to the area you want an address from
4. Continue zooming in until you see rooftops
5. Left click on a rooftop to find the address.
6. You can get the zip code from the post office at www.uspo.com
7. Apply for credit using this address and your correct name and social security number. The credit will be declined, but if it isn’t DO NOT USE THE CARD, DO NOT ACTIVATE IT EITHER.
Do this 20 times a month, every month, using all different addresses and the skip tracers will find a mountain of useless information on top of whatever is useful in your Data Mine Datafile.
As I stated above, some of the best and most valuable information a skip tracer can use is provided by you - the borrower. When you list “References” on a credit application you should keep in mind that the only person at the lender who will contact these “references” is a Collector or a Skip Tracer. That is why the lenders almost universally request “relatives” - because while friends come and go out of your life, your relatives stay.
While there is little you can do to make these References useless on credit that has already been extended, there is a lot you can do to make any future References useless. Look at the wording of the request - they usually want “close relatives not living with you”. The typical consumer will go through their address book and provide just that - close relatives who are not residing with them - the perfect skip tracer’s “Reference”. But the statement “close relatives not living with you” can be broken up into some components that will completely change the remaining of the phrase and make the References totally useless. I break it up like this:
“Not with you”
So.... using THAT interpretation of the request, I feel totally safe knowing that I can list both my parents as references. My father is buried in Florida and my Mother is buried in New Hampshire - and since I live in Arizona they certainly meet the qualifications:
“close relatives” - who is closer than your parents?
“not living” - they are both deceased
“not with you” - I am in AZ, one is in FL and the other in NH.