Finding a person is a very difficult task, made only more difficult when they need to be served. When a plaintiff brings a lawsuit against a defendant, the law requires the defendant to be served a notice of the court action. This is done so that the defendant has enough time to prepare a defense, and is an important part of due process.
However, what happens when the person being served is extraordinarily hard to locate?
Skip tracing comes in. Skip tracing essentially boils down to locating a person’s whereabouts, the word itself coming from the idiomatic expression ‘to skip town’ [to depart in a haste] and to ‘trace’ the path that they might have taken. Skip tracing tactics may be employed by a skip tracer, contact tracer, debt collector, process server, bail bondsman or bail agency enforcer [bounty hunters], repossession agent, private investigator, lawyer, police detective, journalist, or by any person attempting to locate a subject whose contact information is not immediately known. Similar techniques have also been used by investigators to locate witnesses in criminal trials.
WHAT IS SKIP TRACING?
Collecting information is the keystone to successfully locating an evasive individual. Data is amassed about the individuals, then analyzed and verified in order to obtain new and correct points of contact while also sifting out details specifically manufactured to muddle their location. Essentially, a skip tracer’s job is to identify real details about the individual to be located and collect the same.
The job is a lot more than research, though. Third-party individuals who can assist the process can be identified thus, which can usher the process along at a faster pace. This can be attributed to the fact that even when no specific information is returned, public and private databases exist that cross-reference skip tracing information with others the ‘skip’ may have lived within the recent past. For instance, if previous records show a ‘skip’ lived in the same house as a third party, the third party may also be skip traced in an effort to locate the primary target.
Records that ‘skip tracers use may include phone number databases, credit reports [including information provided on a loan application, credit card application, and in other debt collector databases], job application information, criminal background checks, utility bills [electricity, gas, water, sewage, phone, Internet, and cable], social security, disability, and public tax information. While some of these records may be publicly available, some cannot be accessed without an appropriate search warrant, which is generally only available to law enforcement.
SO, WHAT’S A PROCESS SERVER SUPPOSED TO DO
Skip tracing is needed to serve someone who just plain doesn’t want to be served. They’ll take steps to avoid this, changing addresses or jobs, or just dropping off the grid as much as they possibly can. Service is especially hard here if it’s for a person whose particulars one does not have.
If this happens, a process server intervenes. They’re armed with access to higher-technology services, experience from performing the skip trace routine before, and insider information. Even if their address seems like it’s an internet search away, process servers are faster and more efficient, often relying on colleagues to pool in resources and locate the individual.
Additionally, a process server actually knows how to go about skip-tracing legally. It’s difficult to maneuver the mire of federal, local, and state laws, especially with the issues of trespass and privacy, but process servers are trained to be able to work past the same.
LEGALITY OF SKIP TRACING
So, is skip tracing legal?
Essentially, yes. However, privacy laws will still be binding. For example, State Senator Chris Jacobs has introduced legislation to protect the privacy rights of New York residents as the state begins to engage in contact tracing efforts as a key part of its reopening strategy. According to state and national public health officials, contact tracing can help monitor infected individuals as reopening businesses and COVID-19 restrictions loosen.
To prevent a breach of privacy, Jacobs’ bill would require that any person traced must voluntarily opt-in to the tracing program, and it provides that they can withdraw at any time with the assurance that their personal data is encrypted. The legislation creates two new E felonies for unlawful dissemination of contact tracing information as well as unlawful use of a surveillance drone. It also establishes a cause of action enabling people to sue entities responsible for any violation of their right to privacy as it relates to contact tracing. Aggrieved individuals would be allowed to seek damages or declaratory or injunctive relief.
While the above example isn’t purely for skip tracing, it is a good example of what are illegal ways of obtaining information or accessing private documentation without consent. It must be understood that while service to an individual is exceedingly important, being upfront about one’s intentions while also specifically checking local laws and business regulations is what’s necessary to understand exactly what one is permitted to do.
The situation of a skip tracer is also likened to those of debt collectors. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law that limits the behavior and actions of third-party debt collectors who are attempting to collect debts on behalf of another person or entity. The law, as amended in 2010, leaves a few channels to contact debtors, and even specifies the regularity through which they may be contacted. If the FDCPA is violated, a suit may be brought within one year against the debt collection company as well as the individual debt collector for damages and attorney fees.
SKIP TRACING AND BOUNTY HUNTING
Where does bounty hunting come in?
Since skip tracing is often associated with bail bonds and bounty hunting, many bail bondsmen and bounty hunters use skip trace services to locate individuals. They are not synonymous, though, and skip tracers can never exist as bounty hunters.
Skip tracing with regards to bounty hunting refers to a person who has skipped bail. It’s an intentional skip because they do so to avoid jail rather than just an unintentional, well-meaning skip. This means that the process of locating the fugitive is significantly more difficult, as bounty hunters will also have to attempt an apprehension of the fugitive.
Skip tracing is not unlike detective work, as it involves scouring databases, understanding where and how to search for information, and following up on leads. Skip tracing professionals conduct interviews, engage in surveillance activities, and assess information about their subject.
In the past, dumpster diving was a part of skip tracing. Skip tracers are often used to conceal their true identities and motives in order to gain more information. This form of deception, known as ‘pretexting.’ is legal now in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. With the rise of the internet, a lot of skip tracing is conducted online with paid search sites and subscriptions to a number of paid databases. tracers will subscribe to a number of paid databases to help them gather and verify the information.
With COVID-19 requiring every county in the United States to build a contact tracing plan, this industry is expected to hire tens of thousands of tracers in 2020.
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1. Senate Bill S8327, 2019-2020 Legislative Session, Relates to protecting people’s privacy during contact tracing
2. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), Pub. L. 95-109; 91 Stat. 874, codified as 15 U.S.C. § 1692