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Skiptrace (also skip tracing, or debtor and fugitive recovery) is the process of locating a person's whereabouts. A skip tracer is someone who performs this task, which may be the person's primary occupation. The term "skip" (as a noun) refers to the person being searched for, and is derived from the idiomatic expression "to skip town", meaning to depart (perhaps in a rush), leaving minimal clues behind to "trace" the "skip" to a new location.
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, bail enforcement agent, private investigator, lawyer, police detective, journalist, stalker 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.
Skip tracing is performed in stages. The first step is to verify the information provided by the client to understand who the subject is and if the client has any misinformation. Then the skip tracer will start collecting as much information as possible about the subject. The information is then analyzed, reduced, and verified. Sometimes the subject's current whereabouts are in the data, but are obfuscated by the sheer amount of information or disinformation. Often, the job becomes more than mere research since one must often employ methods of social engineering, which involves calling or visiting former neighbors, or other known contacts to ask about the subject, sometimes under false or misleading pretenses.
Records or Information that "skiptracers" 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, or a specific permissible purpose, which is generally only available to financial institutions, their contracted third party vendors, law enforcement or licensed private investigators.
Even when no specific information is returned, public and private databases exist that cross-reference skiptracing information with others the "skip" may have lived with in 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 skiptraced in an effort to locate the primary target.
In the past skip tracing used to include things like dumpster diving and pretext calls to utility companies. Currently, skip tracing is largely conducted online using paid databases and phone calls to gather and verify information. Modern social media platforms such as Facebook have greatly simplified skip tracing work.
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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