Skip tracing seems like pretty serious business, right?
The term sounds technical. And you may have heard it tossed around by bounty hunters or private investigators on TV.
However, skip tracing is useful for more than hunting down fugitives. Skip tracing can be handy for harmless things like finding a friend from high school that you’ve lost contact with. Or doing a little skip tracing yourself can save you money if you need to hire a private investigator or processing service for something more serious like a missing person search.
In any case, skip tracing may be useful for you. Or you may need to hire somebody to do it for you. We’ll cover the basics here to help you decide.
What is Skip Tracing?
First, a basic skip trace definition: “skip trace” is the process of using the information you have about somebody to discover their current location.
The name “skip tracing” is derived from the term, “skip town.” Someone who has dropped off the grid is said to have “skipped town.”
What you’ve seen on TV regarding bounty hunters and private investigators is partially correct. Bounty hunters and private investigators perform skip traces to find people. However, just because you don’t know where a person is, doesn’t mean they’re trying to hide from you.
Sometimes people just move and neglect to tell everyone they were moving. Maybe they’re doing some extended travel. Either way, there are a lot of reasons that people who aren’t bounty hunters or private investigators might want to do a skip trace.
Here are some examples of other professionals who have use for skip tracing:
- Real estate agencies.
- Marketing departments and agencies.
- Missing children organizations.
- Insurance fraud investigators.
- Repossession companies.
- Collection agencies.
- School alumni reunion organizers.
- Employment and tenant verification services.
There are others. But you see how skip tracing is useful in a broad range of professional fields.
Since it’s possible (maybe even probable) that skip tracing is useful for you, here’s what you need to know before you do it:
Is Skip Tracing Legal?
Skip tracing is legal in the U.S.
As long as you’re not breaking laws in order to get information (for example: accessing private records illegally or using violence to get information from somebody), there’s no law against using what you know to find out where someone is.
However, there may be laws in your state or related to your business that govern how you can use your knowledge of a person’s whereabouts. For example, if you’re in the debt collection industry, it’s illegal to mislead or lie about your intentions when contacting debtors. So it’s legal for debt collectors to find people. But you have to tell them truthfully why you’re contacting them, if you do.
Check your local laws and business specific regulations to make sure that you don’t step over the line once you’ve discovered where someone is.
Now, let’s get into the meat and potatoes of skip tracing.
How to Perform a Skip Trace
Skip tracing is more of a process than a one-off activity. There are several steps. However, the process fairly straightforward.
Here’s how it works:
Build a profile
If you’re going to be a skip tracer, the first step is to collect all the information that you have about the person you’re searching for. This is all the data you can currently verify.
Consider personal information:
- Names (first, middle, and last), aliases, and nicknames.
- Date of birth.
- Email addresses.
- Physical addresses.
- Land line and cell phone numbers.
- Social security number.
Also look for historical information:
- Previous physical addresses.
- High school attended.
- College or university attended.
- Previous employers and professions.
- Military service.
And gather associative information:
- Names and addresses of relatives.
- Ex-spouses and significant others.
- Friends, colleagues, and other associates.
- Business associations or affiliations.
Then, take into account any assumed information you may have. The person may have mentioned something about a place they intended to go in your last conversation. A friend of theirs might have said something offhand about a new address or job.
Assumed information can’t be verified. But it can be useful for narrowing your search later on. At the very least, it gives you somewhere to start.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But you get the idea: collect all the information you can. The more information you have, the easier the entire process will be.
Make sure the person is alive
This might be a bit dark, but one reason people fall out of contact is because they’re deceased.
So the first step is to ensure that you’re searching for a live person. To do this, you need to check death records. Fortunately there’s a tool that checks death records.
There are free people search tools. However, free searches don’t check death records. So it’s unlikely that you’ll find this information with a free search tool unless information from the death certificate is published somewhere independently.
Premium records searches usually check death records. However, these aren’t free.
Single premium public records searches are affordable. You can usually get one search done for a few dollars.
If you’re doing a lot of premium member searches, purchasing a subscription to a premium public records search service can save you money.
Once you’ve got this out of the way, move on to the next step.
Check standard phone directories
The most basic information sources are the yellow and white pages. Searching these directories is free.
This search may not turn up any direct matches. Most cell phone numbers aren’t listed in the yellow and white pages. And people are more and more going without any landline at all. So free reverse phone lookups can be spotty.
However, you may get lucky and find something. Or you could tun up a relative or roommate. This is good information when you’re trying to find someone.
Next up: the internet.
Do a Standard Internet Search
This method can be ineffective if you have very limited information. If you’ve only got a phone number or an email address, search engines may not find much.
But, an internet search can turn up some legitimate results if you’ve built a good profile to work from. With a few pieces of information, you can start connecting the dots and get a hit. If you do find someone, cross reference your findings with as many pieces of information as possible. You want to verify that you’ve found the right person.
Also, use the advanced search function to narrow your criteria. Most search engines offer advanced search functionality.
However, if you come away from Google empty handed, you’ll have to forge ahead to the next step.
Search Social Networks
The first thing to know about searching social media is that you’ll usually need an account to get meaningful results. You’ll get extremely limited information if you search without being logged into a valid account.
Social network searches can be very effective if you have the right information. Since social media accounts require an email address, you’ll usually get a good match if you have an email address to search with.
Also, people are usually friends on social media with their actual family and friends. If you already have a list of associated contacts, you can use this to verify that you’ve found the right person on social networks based on the contacts associated with their profile.
Also check the birthday on any social media profiles you find. If it’s not publicly displayed, look for happy birthday messages posted by their friends. The more pieces of information on their social media profile that match what you already know, the more likely it is that you’ve got a positive match.
Facebook and Instagram are by far your biggest information pools. But old networks like MySpace can also be good places to search. A person may have an old MySpace account that they forgot to make private or remove information from.
If you find someone on social media, this will often give you enough information to find them. It’s very common for people to post updates about their whereabouts on social networks.
But, if the person is actively trying to avoid being found, they may intentionally keep sensitive information off the web.
However, if social media doesn’t pan out for you, it’s not the end of the road.
Search professional networks
People have more interest in being found on professional networks. There’s a perception that there are fewer people snooping around on professional networks. This means that sometimes people are a bit looser with their information on social media networks like LinkedIn.
The rules for professional networks are essentially the same as social networks:
- You’ll need an account to find any good information.
- An email address is your best search criteria.
- Check their connections and birthday to verify you’ve found the right person.
If you’ve still found nothing at this point, there’re still a few more options.
Search other online resources
There a few more repositories of information that you can access online for free.
Check blogging sites like WordPress. There’s no universal search engine for blogs. But if you check the most popular blogging sites, you’ll cover a vast majority of that ground.
If you know where the person went to high school or college, check their school alumni and reunion websites. This can turn up location information, as people often talk about where their traveling from for a reunion or what they’re up to now.
At this point, if you’re still coming up zeroes, it may be time to throw a few dollars into your search.
Do a Skip Tracing Search
There are skip trace searches that are often very effective.
However, skip tracing searches usually costs a few dollars. And you’ll usually need some sort of business account to use these services. But you can purchase as many searches as you need.
Batch Skip Tracing
Batch skip tracing, also called bulk skip tracing, is most common for real estate wholesalers and businesses that need a specific piece of contact information for a lot of people. Think of it as gathering the minimum viable contact information for your business needs.
For example: batch skip tracing for real estate usually involves using a name and address to get a phone number. This creates a contactable phone list. Bulk skip tracing can also create reliable email lists and mailing lists.
The best way to perform a bulk skip trace is through a batch append service. Batch append will get you the information you need to make contact with people.
Batch skip traces are great if you need to make contact through a specific channel. However, false positives are possible. And, occasionally, a bulk skip trace won’t get the information you need. Sometimes, you need to hire a professional.
Lastly, if all else fails, you may need to hire a professional to find someone for you. If a person can’t be found using online resources, it may be necessary to contact someone who knows how to use investigative prowess to get information. Private investigators know how to use all types of information sources to find people. They usually check things that you just can’t find on the internet:
- Utility bills.
- Credit reports (usually credit card application and loan applications use updated information).
- Vehicle registration information.
- Property records.
- Public tax information.
This is what makes private investigators so good at locating people using minimal clues.
However, this sort of work is best left to people who do it for a living.
So that’s skip tracing. Depending on your needs, a DIY online skip trace may work for you.
If you’re struggling, check out our people finder to find out if a free people search will find who you’re looking for.
Feel free to leave a comment and let us know if you’ve successfully skip traced anyone. If you have, what methods worked for you?