Confessions of a Skip Tracer -or- How to Protect Yourself From the Collector
The Skip Tracer
I spent 5 years in the repossession industry. It was one of my most interesting jobs, and it's helped me in my personal life as well.
I worked as a Skip Tracer. What's that, you ask? Well, I like to tell people that I was essentially a cyber bounty hunter. I used the internet and the phone to find people who had skipped out on paying their car loan, then I would contact a driver in the area to go and repossess the vehicle.
Skip Tracers are considered on the 'elite' end of collections. We don't bother with negotiation for money. We want the car, and considering most of the accounts we deal with are in severe arrears, the bank is fed up with negotiation for money as well - in most situations.
The Skip Tracer is diligent, and a good Skip Tracer will be more persistent and diligent in finding you than you are when trying to get rid of your in-laws after an extended stay. We can be very shrewd in our methods as well, utilizing the internet to gain deep insight on your life.
The internet is the Skip Tracer's most important tool. And the plethora of information found on a particular person is incredibly revealing.
Security firms talk about protecting yourself online from hackers and viruses that can steal your information and identity, but no one talks about what kind of information is out there beyond passwords, social security numbers, and credit card accounts.
Simple searches of your name will provide basic information. Using quotation marks around your name (search for "John Smith" instead of John Smith) will only bring up results containing that exact phrase within the quotations.
A good Skip Tracer will manipulate the internet to locate information about you.
How many social media sites are you a part of?
By nature, we are creatures of habit, and when it comes to technology, this is particularly evident.
If you spend any time on the internet at all, you probably have various profiles across various forms of social media. And with each of these profiles, you pick a screen name. Think about all the profiles you have out there on the internet. Is your screen name the same across the board?
As an experiment, take a screen name you use and pop it into Google. What results come up? All the profiles you've used that screen name with, plus any websites you've commented on with that same screen name.
So while your actual name may not have many hits on Google, I bet your screen name will.
Besides locating profiles on the internet, a Skip Tracer can use your screen name to read a bit about you. For instance, if your screen name is runner34, there's a good bet that you jog as a hobby. And generally speaking, most people who do any kind of running end up running in local marathons and 5 and 10ks in their communities. So, logically, I'm going to search in your area for any runs that might be coming up and make sure to communicate that information to my repo driver.
So make sure you vary your screen names on your profiles, even if it's something as simple as a number change (i.e. runner35 instead of runner34)
Also consider using ambiguous screen names - monster35 instead of runner35
IP Addresses for Businesses
Sometimes, some of the accounts that would cross my desk would be associated with a small business, usually a business owned by the main person on the account.
For example, John Smith owns Smith's Bakery, which has a website. John Smith's website has to be registered, and online searches like WHOIS will help a Skip Tracer develop a potential lead by providing specific information on the website.
The search engine will show who owns the domain name, including an address and phone number. If it's not John Smith, then it could potentially be a third party who knows how to get in touch with Mr. Smith. The IP address itself can give you the location of the 'home base' for the website (where it originates from).
This is a Catch-22, as there isn't a whole lot that can be done to counteract this search. The internet is a fantastic tool to get in touch with consumers all over the country, and even internationally. To restrict your business based solely on limiting the efforts of a Skip Tracer isn't very business savvy.
Just be aware this search can be done. Fortunately, not a lot of Skip Tracers know about IP address searches.
Court Records/Other Public Records
Some states have excellent court records that are accessible free of charge. Ohio is a great example of this. Using a license plate number or driver license number (keep in mind this information is included in the paperwork from the original contract you signed) a Skip Tracer can pull up your ticket information, including accident reports.
A Skip Tracer can often access County Clerk records and locate property information, as a matter of public record. And it is completely legal for the Skip Tracer to contact your landlord for information, however there are limits to what can and cannot be said. I'll delve into that in a bit. Property records can be handy, especially if there's unimproved land you own, where you just might hide the collateral, say, some hunting property, for instance.
Vehicle registration records aren't nearly as accessible, but some states do allow free searches to find the latest registration information.
Also keep in mind that any information you enter into online applications (for credit cards, profile creations, online offers, and even address changes) can be purchased and shared as public information. This is limited to addresses and phone numbers, as most sites that ask for personal information like bank account numbers and social security numbers are bound by law to keep that information private.
What a Skip Tracer Cannot Do
There are times when a Skip Tracer will resort to phone calls in an attempt to verify information. The Skip Tracer is bound to the regulations found within the Fair Debt Collections Practice Act, or the FDCPA.
Now, if you search 'Collectors' and 'FDCPA' you're bound to find websites that will show you how to try to trip up a debt collector. I don't recommend trying any of these techniques, simply because an uneducated, uninformed debt collector will entrap themselves.
However, there are a few things you should know.
- A collector/skip tracer must call between the hours of 8 am and 9 pm in the debtor's time zone - this means if the collector is calling from New York, they have to wait until 11 am their time to contact a debtor in California.
- A collector/skip tracer cannot call your phone in excess - in most circumstances, that means no more than 3 calls in one day and no more than 1 message left.
- A collector/skip tracer must leave a message if the phone rings through to voice mail or an answering machine. This is called 'meaningful disclosure' and they must provide their reason for calling. You'll often hear this as 'an important personal business matter'
- You can't just simply tell a collector to stop calling you. You generally have to submit a 'no contact' order in writing to the place where the debt originated (the bank, for example).
- It is perfectly legal for a collector to contact family, friends, and references they find as they research the account. They cannot, however, call family, friends, or references repeatedly unless an arrangement is made with the person.
- Most importantly, a collector cannot accuse you of stealing, tell you the bank will press charges, or threaten jail time. The only exception is if the bank has the intent to press charges, which is only applicable in certain situations. Collectors also cannot threaten physical harm or oppress or abuse anyone they call. This means they can't call you a deadbeat because you haven't paid your bill.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself
Ultimately, if you owe money, or you know you're going to default on a loan, contact your bank. In the case of automobile loans, the bank really doesn't want the vehicle back, because they're not going to get the full amount owed on the vehicle when it's auctioned off. Which then means they have to come find you again to get the remaining balance.
Most financial institutions would much rather keep you in your vehicle and work with you, but you have to maintain contact with them.
If for some reason you don't, or won't, then you need to be careful in regards to what sort of information you put out on the internet. Here's a few tips:
- Never post your phone number or address publicly. Make sure you check your Facebook account to see what information is visible there.
- Become educated. Read the text of the FDCPA, so you understand what your responsibilities are as a consumer and what the responsibilities are of the debt collector.
- Be aware of the repetitive use of screen names, as this can provide information to the skip tracer that would otherwise not be found.
- Remember, you signed a legal, binding contract for that loan. You are bound to the terms of that contract, regardless of how ridiculous you feel they are now as opposed to when you signed. You have obligations to that loan as well.
- If you feel you are being unjustly pursued for the debt, say something. Ask the collector to provide in writing proof that the debt exists. You can contest the debt at any time, which will put a temporary hold on contact until that information is received.
- Telephone Consumer Protection Act
Contains regulations regarding 'automatic dialers' and other aspects of telecommunication
- Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act
The text of the GLBA, which regulates what can be said in messages left on voice mails and answering machines
- Fair Debt Collection Practices Act | Federal Trade Commission
The text of the FDCPA
Questions and comments
Feel free to ask any questions on this subject. I'll do my best to answer them.