The contents of a skip tracer’s toolbox have grown immensely in the last 20 years. For every phone book or directory a tracer used in the past, 50 more digital versions have sprung up in its place. This means tracing is a cinch now, right? If only. It still requires the same amount of resourcefulness, intuition and a fair share of the “knack.” What was once true for tracers 20 years ago, still holds true today: some of the old fashion sources still exist because they still work.
Collection Advisor caught up with the always-on-the-move Michèle Stuart, president and owner of JAG Investigations. Michèle revealed her reliable tracing sources of choice and what it takes to run a great skip tracing office. Collection Advisor also spoke with skip tracing guru Ron Brown, owner of ConSec Investigations and principal at CSI Group. Brown discussed the importance of a strong network and his search for actual treasure on the open range.
How did you get started in skip tracing?
Stuart: I got started in skip tracing in the late ‘80s, early 90’s when I was conducting financial investigations for a company that was contracted by the FDIC/RTC. Back in those days, we didn’t have access to the data systems we have today so locating people (skipping) was a huge part of the research. It was mostly calling people, making connections with others in the skip trace world, sharing contacts, directories and public record searching.
Brown: I got my start in skip tracing doing “fugitive interdiction,” the law enforcement terminology for skip tracing. Same process, same procedures and hopefully the same results.
What methods of growing your network have you found to be the most successful?
Stuart: Networking at training events or conferences has been the best way to meet people. Many of us have talked to the same person for years on the phone and never meet them in person. Meeting them face-to-face at conferences or trade shows, I believe, creates a stronger relationship.
Brown: I have found one of the most important tools of a professional tracer is their ability to establish a network. I have attempted to establish mine by developing every person I meet as a future source. I exchange business cards, write on the back not only the date and place I met the person but also something personal about them. In the beginning I placed the cards in a drawer where it was indexed by the information that person might provide; today I scan the card and keep the data on a thumb drive.
What do you think is a good skip tracing source and/or technique you think collection professionals overlook?
Stuart: I think the most underused sources are good old fashion public records. Many in the industry spend an enormous amount of time on databases. Now don’t get me wrong, they are an incredible tool that I also use; however, not all counties report or sell their data to these databases. Taking the time to look at what is accessible online and/or just a quick phone call can produce information that may not be maintained in the database being utilized for their searches. One example is pet licenses. If a person owns a dog, what do they have to do? License it!
Brown: I think tracers often overlook the open sources in plain sight; the easy sources such as the telephone directory, Google search and credit applications. They tend to make the hunt too complicated. The professional tracer must always remember that the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line, stay away from the tangents.
What is one of the worst mistakes a skip tracer can make and how do you avoid it?
Stuart: I don’t like to reference anything as “the worst” as we all have our own way of skipping. People have different ways to conduct their research, our brains think differently. However, if I wanted to point out something I have seen over and over is the fact that old data is dismissed. Understanding how the Internet works, how information is archived and cross referenced is important. Just because an individual disconnected their phone number doesn’t mean the history associated to that number (and person) is now wiped from the web. I always say in my classes “old is gold.”
Brown: One of the worst mistakes a tracer can make, and not even realize they are doing it, is basing conclusions on assumptions rather than on knowledge, and become skip guessers instead of skip tracers.
What is something creditors can do to ensure easier skip tracing?
Stuart: Collect as much personal data in the beginning of the application stage as you can. Ask for all email addresses used by the subject, ask for all contact and reference phone numbers. Anytime an individual creates a social media account, they have to provide an email address. This will be an important bit of data if the account needs to be skipped at a later date.
Brown: To ensure easier skip tracing the creditors should always review the credit application they receive at the time of the transaction to check for red flags: all references living at the same address or employed at the same place, the employment phone number and the primary contact number being the same. We do a complete seminar for creditors on recognizing red flags on an application. The creditor should scrutinize that application and the information on it as if they were never going to see that consumer again, because in many cases they won’t.
What is the key to running a great skip tracing office?
Stuart: A great office is created by a great boss. What a boss says to his employees becomes their inner voice. Many skip tracers are working hundreds of accounts, with very little time provided for them per account. I have trained hundreds of skip tracers and they are under a lot of stress when it comes to deadlines and client updates. Creating an environment of respect and appreciation makes people work harder, more willing to go the extra mile per se. Also providing them the tools and sources they need to properly conduct their searches is a huge factor.
Brown: The key to running a great skip tracing unit, finding people and things when others cannot, is the constant sharing of sources and ideas. Sources are the key and they are like windows on a house as they constantly open and close. The tracing unit must be able to take advantage of the winds that blow through those open windows.
Describe a particularly challenging skip trace and how you managed location.
Stuart: This is a tough one as I have been conducting research/investigations for 28 years. There isn’t really just one that sticks out. The more difficult skips are the ones that are technologically advanced. They use VoIPs for phone numbers, wipe their social media accounts, manipulate their names, use post office boxes or mail drop centers. Technology is a wonderful tool for us but it also causes a huge problem in trying to locate an individual.
Brown: A particular challenging tracing assignment was the locating and recovering of $12 million worth of road building equipment which had been paid for with a counterfeit cashier’s check. The process entailed networking with sources developed through the years which included but were not limited to the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), U.S. Customs Service, U.S. State Department, U.S. Embassy in Lima Peru and the Peruvian National Police (Policia Nacional de Peru/PNP). Networking with all of these entities and bringing it all together was particularly challenging but led to a very successful outcome.
What do you think the future holds for skip tracing?
Stuart: There will always be a need for skip tracing, whether it be for the location of a debtor or the location of suspect. I believe that skip tracing will always need to advance in training on open sources and social media platforms.
Brown: I think that as long as there are large price items there will have to be credit purchases and as long as items are sold on credit terms there will be people who do not pay and skip out. As long as there are skips there will be a need for professional skip tracers. Our ability to trace has always paralleled our ability to communicate and never have we had the communication tools we have today. The professional tracer must constantly keep track of the new and innovative tools and techniques and move forward with the times, constantly adapting.
What is one tip you would give skip tracers in the current skip tracing/ compliance environment?
Stuart: Never ever friend your debtor [on social media] to obtain information from them.
Brown: In the current skip tracing compliance environment I would provide the tracers with a quotation from Jonathan Swift, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets fly through.” Know the laws which govern your activities, know those laws frontwards and backwards, inside and out. Never break those laws but rather find a legal way to navigate through them.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Stuart: Sleep, LOL. I was on the road over 250 days last year. If I actually can get a whole week off, I like to relax on a private beach somewhere with no computer or cell phone. Realistically, the beach can happen but the no computer or phone never happens.
Brown: In my free time, when I have free time, I like to ride my Harley-Davidson to my ranch, the Bar-B-Bar Almosta Ranch, saddle up my horse and ride out searching for the lost treasures of the James Gang, the Doolin Brothers and the many other outlaws who secreted their stolen treasures in the hills and mesas of Oklahoma. Now that is real skip tracing.