From Collector: A New Take on Skiptracing
Mining the internet and other channels to find hidden information.
3/9/2018 12:42 PM
For some people, the idea of a “skiptracer” conjures up the image of a beefy, tattooed character like Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the A&E reality show, Dog the Bounty Hunter.
While Chapman and his crew use street smarts, teamwork and luck to hunt bail jumpers, 21st century skiptracers working in the debt collection industry are a totally different breed, tapping into their knowledge of databases, websites and social media to locate consumers who have dropped off the grid, ACA International Vice President of Communications Kim Coghill reports in the March issue of Collector magazine.
In a recent ACA International Hot Topic seminar, “Using Open Sources and Social Media in Skiptracing,” Michèle Stuart, owner of JAG Investigations Inc. in Queen Creek, Ariz., spoke for nearly two hours about her innovative approach to identifying and using open sources on the internet and within social media channels to help clients find hard-to-obtain information.
Throughout her lengthy career as an investigator, Stuart has helped an array of clients, including federal and state law enforcement, military intelligence, attorneys, corporations, small businesses, insurance companies and private detectives, solve problems by fitting puzzle pieces together.
“Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have the ability to utilize information sources on the internet,” said Stuart, a licensed private investigator in Arizona. “We had hundreds of contacts on rolodexes, Cole directories, notebooks with pages of contacts from other companies and scribbled-out notes on scraps of paper.”
Flash forward to 2018, and nearly every bit of information a skiptracer needs is located somewhere on the internet. The trick is to understand how to use available information without overlooking seemingly insignificant data and knowledge, Coghill reports.
Where is the information?
Databases offered by LexisNexis and TransUnion’s TLOxp are among some of the most commonly used resources by skiptracers working for debt collectors or other financial services organizations. For companies like Collection Service Center Inc. in New Kensington, Pa., electronic databases are usually the most efficient means of finding information, particularly when the debt is not large, CEO Jim Simmermon told Collector magazine.
“There’s a lot of public information out there, and sometimes it is not cost-efficient to spend a lot of money or staff time unless you have a high-balance account,” he said.
In cases involving high-dollar accounts, a debt collector may want to consider Stuart’s approach to mining open sources or public information to collect “actionable intelligence.”
For example, social media websites as well as internet search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing could be among the first resources skiptracers turn to as more and more consumers are eager to share details about their lives when they log on to their cell phones or computers.
Other search sites that provide viewers with easy access to current and past phone numbers and addresses are largely based on public information. The most commonly used sites are True People Search, Family Tree Now and Radaris.
Stuart cautions that some of the information found on these websites is not necessarily accurate or complete, particularly if the site relies on public information.
Old is Gold
When using websites like True People Search and Family Tree Now, Stuart advised skiptracers to pay attention to old or dated information as it can easily lead to new findings. “Old is gold—I say this over and over. If you go back in time, you can go forward,” she said.
For example, an old address can lead to a telephone number, a relative or an associate of a consumer. And if you are coming up short on information, don’t forget to try transposing or manipulating telephone numbers, addresses or name spellings before entering them into a search site, Coghill reports.
Disconnected telephone numbers are as important today as email addresses and usernames, Stuart said, adding, “just because you delete a phone number [that] doesn’t mean all information associated with that phone number has been deleted from the internet.”
She advises skiptracers to search for phone numbers on Google or enter them into Whitepages.com as such searches may lead to more valuable information.
In the debt collection business, files don’t always come with accurate telephone numbers, according to Simmermon.
That’s why for certain accounts, email addresses are the next best lead, particularly since such information can lead a skiptracer to an accurate Facebook page.
And while many debt collectors are wary of using social media to track down information on consumers, it can be a good resource for pinpointing locations, contacts, associates—and family members. Debt collectors, however, do need to ensure that their skiptracing techniques do not run afoul of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requirements.
Anyone with concerns about the legalities of using social media or the internet to find consumers is advised to visit ACA’s website at www.acainternational.org or the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.ftc.gov.
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