Skip tracing is the process of locating someone. It is a tactic that many businesses use, including debt collection agencies, investigative firms, and law enforcement agencies.
Skip tracing cases are among the most common types of cases a private investigator will handle. Of the 10,000+ cases we have handled at Trustify, skip tracing investigations represent a sizable proportion of the work we do for our legal and corporate clients - typically 20-30%. In this post we will answer some common questions about the skip tracing work that we do.
What is "Skip Tracing"?
In basic terms, skip tracing or skip locating is the act of finding (or “tracing”) someone who has left (or “skipped”) town, often for purposes of debt collection - hence the term "skip trace". In these cases a private investigator (or private detective) will attempt to locate the person's contact details, current address, and even location in real-time.
However, many private investigators choose not to use the term "skip trace," instead grouping skip trace cases in with other case types that involve finding someone on behalf of a client. These sorts of cases are generally called "locate cases."
A skip trace case is actually a subtype of regular locate cases. In a skip tracing case the person being located (known as the person of interest, or POI) doesn't wish to be found. This is an important point of distinction. A private investigator can only turn a person’s location and personal information over to a 3rd party when they have legal basis for doing so.
For ethical and legal reasons, Trustify investigators will not turn personal information over to a client without a sound legal reason for the client to be seeking this person (for example to collect on a debt), or the consent of the POI.
To find someone, investigators working on a skip trace case will use everything from specialized investigator databases, public records/information, and open-source intelligence techniques to court filings and property deeds. Given the sheer amount of digital and paper records created by the average person, almost anyone can be located by an investigator given sufficient time.
Who do Private Investigators Look for in Skip Trace Cases?
Because people who are the subject of skip trace investigations usually don't want to be found, the subject of these cases are usually wanted by someone else to repay a debt, or because they are needed for a legal proceeding of some kind. Examples of skip trace subjects include:
- Important witnesses for attorneys
- Missing heirs to estates
- Subjects of legal proceedings who need to be served with process papers
- Defendants or an attorney’s client who has failed to appear for a court date
- People who have skipped bail
- Debtors who have defaulted
- Customers or clients who have failed to pay a business for services rendered
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What Information Will an Investigator Find?
Obviously, the primary goal of a skip trace investigation is to determine the current location of the POI. Once the POI is located, the investigator may act on this information directly by serving papers, making contact with the individual, or even arresting them in the case of bail-skippers. At the conclusion of the case, the investigator should follow up with a report which will contain some, or all, of the following information about the subject, including their:
- Current address
- Place of work
- Current phone number
- Social security number or other ID number (this may be redacted for privacy reasons)
- Evidence substantiating the investigator’s findings
How Much Does a Skip Trace Investigation Cost?
- Time: 4-20 hours of investigator time*
- Cost: $406 - $762*
*Hours are based on our own internal data on skip trace and locate cases, and the cost is calculated using our discounted bulk rate of $79/hour with no retainer, plus administrative costs.
Needless to say, cost can vary for cases like these. The main determiner of price is whether the case turns out to be research or surveillance. Private investigators can find information digitally extremely quickly and inexpensively (say for $300-$400), but if surveillance is needed then the price can be 2 or 3 times as high. Basically, don't assume that your case will be at either end of this range - or even on this range at all.
Factors like the amount of information that you have on the POI, whether they're actively hiding, and what their background is play a big role in determining how much your case is likely to cost, too. For example, a homeless person who doesn’t want to be found can be difficult to track, as they tend not to leave much of a paper trail. By comparison, a debtor with a fixed address is likely to be much easier to find.
How do Investigators do Skip Tracing?
No trade secrets here - these cases require a lot of research and, depending on the case, a moderate amount of legwork. Generally speaking, an investigator will be looking for a current address - but if they have no luck, they'll start looking for any and all information related to the POI that might help them. This could include everything from previous known addresses, to where they work and what car they own. Finally, they'll hit the pavement and confirm the whereabouts of the POI. To accomplish all this, an investigator will use resources and tactics like:
- Investigator databases (like TLOxp) which allow them to find phone numbers, addresses, vehicle movements, and much more.
- Open source intelligence methods including deep web research, social media analysis, and other online resources.
- Public records like property tax documents, court records, and more.
- Interviews with known associates, colleagues, and neighbors.
- Surveillance of places they suspect that the POI might live or visit.
- Canvassing of neighborhoods where the POI might be.
Some cases will require out-of-the-box thinking, so this list is by no means exhaustive.
Can’t I Just Enter Someone's Name into an Inexpensive Database and Get Their Address?
You could do that - but we’re pretty confident that you’ll end up hiring an investigator in the end anyway. "Free" and cheap databases are updated infrequently and have fragmented information, and the data they return is essentially unverified.
If you have an important, immediate need to locate someone, a private investigator is the way to go. Investigators use far more sophisticated tools and will verify any information they find. Sure - once in a while a free tool might find similar information to what an investigator would - but it won’t be verified, and it definitely won’t be as detailed.
Oh, and if the person you're looking for doesn't want to be found (as they often won't if you're trying to serve them papers, or collect on a debt), the chances of a cheap database giving you useful information is almost nil.
Some Real Trustify Skip Trace Stories:
Son Missing From NY Found in CA
When a troubled son went missing from New York along with his mother’s car, the family thought they’d be looking for a needle in a haystack. They contacted us with the only two pieces of information they had: a description of the car he took, and a vague email he had sent to his sister claiming he’d driven to California.
Our investigator was able to analyze the email and confirm it had originated in California. Using this information, he ran an advanced vehicle search in the state, looking for recent sightings of the car the POI had taken. Luckily, the search returned a number of sightings in the LA area, most notably a recent one in a supermarket parking lot on the outskirts of LA. Our investigator drove out to the location of the last vehicle sighting and discovered that the runaway son was living out of the family car, using a the parking lot as a home base. We were able to put the son in contact with his family, who stepped in to give him the care he needed.
Justice Served to a Fake Private Investigator
We get plenty of locate cases - but not many where we’re asked to locate a private investigator. We were approached by the client after she gave a $1,000 retainer to a private investigator to locate someone, only to have the investigator she hired jump town without doing any work.
Based on the information we received from the client we were able to research the individual. Unsurprisingly, we found that he had history of fraud and theft charges. We also found records indicating his private investigator license was revoked after numerous complaints had been filed against him for fraudulent and dishonest practices. Most importantly though, we found his current address which we used to serve him papers on behalf of our client.
Mother and Daughter Reunited
Reconnecting people is something that we take great pleasure in doing. In this case, our client came to us after having lost custody of her daughter over a decade ago. Eager to reconnect, she had already spent thousands on investigators who seemed incapable of producing results. Luckily, we were able to match the client with a talented researcher who was able to find her daughter, and offer them the chance to reconnect through the appropriate channels. By the end of the day they were talking on the phone for the first time.
Quick note: while we love to reconnect people, we take the ethics of locating adults very seriously. We recognize that some people have ended contact with family, friends, and loved ones for a reason. When we do not have a legal basis for disclosing the personal details and location of someone to a client, we always reach out to the person we are locating and let them know who is searching for them, and ask their permission to share their details with our client.
Video by Stacy Blackburn