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Skip-tracers and
Skipmanship


from Bill-Collector Confidential, Ch. 9
by Steve Katz and George Trinkaus


Skip-tracers

A “skip” is a delinquent debtor that a collector cannot locate, having become unreachable by phone or mail. Historically, since there have been debtors with legs, there have been skips, and there have been skip-tracers.

Today's mobile population makes skip-tracing a central challenge in collection. The technology for tracing mobile debtors as they move through a computerized world is called data-mining. The data-mining service Accurint (now merged with Lexus-nexus) says, “The key is locating the account holder.” Thirty-five percent of delinquent debtors move annually, and half of all accounts received for collections require some form of skip tracing.

The recovery rate is only 15 to 35 percent, admits Accurint, noting that, from 1995 to 2003, credit-card collection charge-offs were $58 billion and growing at the rate of 12 percent per year.

your credit application
Today the internet provides the collector with many new investigative tools, but before the web, the skip-tracer had to start his trace from the scant information the debtor had provided about himself on a credit application. The skip-tracer would then phone a debtor's references, a relative, friend, or employer who might provide a clue as to the skip's whereabouts.

While today's skip-tracer is likely to begin his search on the internet, the old method can still be useful. The more information on the credit application, the better for the skip tracer. People tend to be honest on credit applications out of concern that any dishonesty discovered might get them refused. The savvy consumer knows that falsehood on a credit application constitutes sufficient reason for that debt not to be discharged in any future bankruptcy. The Patriot Act requires financial institutions to “verify the customer’s identity.” Most useful in the application are the debtor's social security number and his references. While what is found on the credit application may be obsolete by the time the skip tracer gets to look at it, it is common for the debtor to leave a wide-open trail that leads the skip tracer right to him.

A skip tracer should have a personable telephone voice and enjoy cajoling reluctant people into talking. He should also have an ability to lie. Few relatives would answer a direct question like, “Where can I find your uncle John so I can sue him?” but many might respond to, “Where can I find your uncle John so I can give him this check?” (Author Steve confesses that when he did this work he might assume the voice of a “Dr. Rosenthal” at county hospital: “Your kid’s been hit by a car and we need some information and a verbal consent to operate or he may die.”) Skills like this may still apply, but today, in the data age, much information that a skip tracer once had to go out and dig for are available on the web.

digital sleuthing
Public records have been transformed into digital format and made available on the internet. It used to take weeks for a skip tracer to put together a file that today can be built in minutes just from various search engines, even Google. A skip tracer can easily turn up a wealth of information, some of it accurate, some of it not, some of it relevant, most of it not.

According to collector Ron Brown, author of Manhunt, skip-tracing today is “forty-nine percent art, forty-nine percent science and two percent pure bulldog determination.” The “art” is the ability to extract information, often through subterfuge. The “science” is the ability to data-mine the web. The “bulldog determination” includes the patience to wade through a mass of mined information in order to sort out the factual and useful from all that is not. Skip-tracing can be very costly. The computerized phases can be done quickly and cheaply, but the analyzing of data, the sifting through it to determine its potential and then using that data actually to locate the elusive skip can be very time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive, and this is to your advantage.

how debtors skip
There are two types of skips, intentional and unintentional. The latter moves his residence and forgets to notify a lender, and he may neglect to leave a forwarding address with the post office. A lender may mail with “address correction requested” on the envelope, and the post office will provide (for a fee) a forwarding address on file. The unintentional skip tends to come forward quickly and to notify his lenders of the new address.

The intentional skip moves and deliberately fails to notify creditors. He may at best leave an empty trail. But the wily skip will lay down trails that are false. It is for this skip that the tracer must expend the most effort, time, and expense.

There was a time when a skip-tracer might actually go into the streets to follow a debtor, say, from a known residence to an unknown workplace. Today all this work is done from his office desk. His primary tool is his PC and the internet search engine. The internet yields a wealth of information for tracers.

data mining
The data-mining service has become a major tool for the skip tracer. The credit bureaus are another important tool. Data-mining companies gather all of the information that can be found about the skip from all available databases, which number in the hundreds. (There are only a few closed databases, like those of law-enforcement agencies.) When you answer questions on that application for a supermarket discount club-card, when you fill out the entry card for some advertiser's free-vacation sweepstakes, you are providing valuable information that will eventually get into files that can be exploited by data miners. All the findings on a skip are placed in one file which the data miner sells to the skip-tracer.

Club cards and sweepstakes are marketing devices, but they exist mostly for surveillance purposes. The most innocent surveillance is for the analysis of your consumer habits, but the data can be sold to any buyer, such as a skip tracer or some devious big-brother agency.

Any membership card you carry can assist a skip tracer in finding you. Do you have a Barnes & Noble discount card? Bookstore chains keep track of every title you buy, and thus have knowledge of your hopes, dreams, fears, medical problems. Do you have a frequent-flier or rental-car account? There are your travel records. Data bases are for sale that log all the details of your travel from airline and other sources. Your MySpace and Facebook pages are useful, of course. Data miners are eager to dig up and record anything they can find on you without any professional regard for the accuracy of the data. Data is data, indiscriminately. This reality can bite you, but, for the savvy debtsman, the industry's blind accumulation of any and all data is its Achilles heel.

A profile of a debtor's personal interests can help lead a tracer to a skip. Data mining can turn up addresses connected to one's professional licenses or even to one's hobbies. Author Steve found information on himself in databases pertaining to being an IRS-enrolled tax-agent, a licensed airplane pilot, a stamp collector, a little-league umpire, and even as the owner of a particular breed of dog. Knowledge of these interests could lead to a successful trace ...

Skipmanship

The noose of debt is tightening around your neck,
and you see no way out but to slip away in the night to some other town. Every fiber of your instinct says “flight,” but that recourse seems impossible in this high-surveillance world. Big brother knows your family and friends, store memberships, airlines, car rentals, banks, credit-card statements, subscriptions, library records, phone records, emails... And consider those data miners, omniscient; they can drill down into the very core of your privacy, anywhere in the world. In this data age, how could anyone contrive to disappear? It's easy. You know that Achilles heel of the industry: it will sponge up any and all data on you, indiscriminately. A proliferation of data complicates the case, confounds the case, and can make tracing so challenging that the skip tracer has to give up. How does this volume of data come about? You create it.

your disinformation campaign
Steve asked his detective, “What does a debtor do to elude a trace?” He said, “He must conduct his life so that no correct information gets into his files while plenty of incorrect information does."
If you manage your own data, you can disappear at the data level, and that's all you need to thwart a trace. You change location, yes, and then you disappear into a fog of disinformation that you manufacture. You still retain your name and social security number, but in respect to all other features of your profile, you conduct a disinformation campaign. The techniques of skipmanship have been useful in federal witness-protection programs. You create such an overwhelming volume of data that, unless you owe millions, no skip tracer can afford to deal with the task of finding the real you.

Look in your wallet. There you are, The Data-You: in that driver's license, that voting card, those credit cards, club cards, membership cards. Procedures exist to change your address and phone number at some of these data centers. Do so. Get on the web, get into your accounts and post deviations of your address and phone number until the record is a confusing mess to any potential tracer.

When you apply for credit, you want your file to be filled with as much incorrect information as possible. Of course, you provide correct name and social security number (You don’t deviate these basics, but the data-miners may do it for you, as they did for Steve.) Then you bombard the data bases with addresses, which need not even exist. All addresses fed into the system are presumed to be accurate. Data-miners make no effort to verify them. Choicepoint is programmed to identify obviously false addresses, like private mailbox companies or the UPS Store, and will identify these as “suspect.” Locate Plus is not so programmed.

Nonexistent addresses can be fed into the system ad infinitum, but actual addresses can be found at the map website Zillow. This is the procedure: starting at your home address, (1) On the scale bar on the left, scale the map to USA. (2) Drag the map by right-clicking on it to somewhere far away from where you live. (3) Zoom in gradually to the area from which you want an address (4) Continue zooming in until you see rooftops. (5) Left click on a rooftop to find the address. (6) Get the zip code from the post office at uspo.com. (7) Apply for a credit card using this address, your correct name and social security number. The credit will probably be declined, but a record will be created. If the credit is somehow granted, do not activate or use the card. Do this procedure many times, using many different addresses, and the skip tracers will find a mountain of useless information on top of whatever may actually be useful in your voluminous datafile.

Invent creative references. You are asked to list references on a credit application, but perhaps the only entity ever to contact these “references” would be a collector or a skip-tracer. Applications ask for names of relatives; friends come and go, but your relatives are assumed to be staying in touch. The application asks for “close relatives not living with you.” The typical consumer will go through his address book and provide the perfect skip tracer’s reference. But, stretching the wording a bit, the statement “close relatives not living with you” can conceivably be broken up into the components “close relatives”...“not living”... “with you." With that interpretation, one can list as references deceased parents, aunts, uncles...

Create false leads. You want to vanish ultimately to L.A? So fly to Las Vegas, rent a car, go to a realty agent and apply for the rental of some apartment, all under your real name and social security number. The agent will run a credit check. There, you have created a record in your credit file that places you in Las Vegas. You have also left tracks in the airline and car-rental data bases. When a skip-tracer looks for you, he will run your credit record and see an inquiry from a company in Vegas and start looking there. Your goal is to eat up his budget.

While you are still in Vegas or wherever, apply for a checking account at a local bank. Almost every bank uses a service that lists overdrafts, and the same service will also list where you applied for a bank account. A crafty investigator will locate your inquiry in Vegas and search there.

In your new account, you can leave a balance of $300 or less. You can receive an ATM card. That ATM card you could turn over someday to a trusted friend going traveling. He makes an ATM withdrawal, say, in New York. The skip tracer checking that account is now looking for you in New York. Three months later a withdrawal from your account is made in Omaha. Thus you eat up the budget of any tracer who might be searching for you.

from Bill-Collector Confidential
by Steve Katz and George Trinkaus

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