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By: Ronald Coleman, CFE
Professional investigators are routinely called upon to conduct missing person investigations for attorneys. These investigations include locating missing debtors, heirs, witnesses and clients. Locating missing witnesses and missing clients make up the majority of the requests.
Missing Persons Investigations
Missing person investigations can be divided into two investigative services; skip tracing and people locating.
1. Skip-tracing is the locating of a debtor who has “skipped” or disappeared from the last known address location and has neglected the financial obligation to repay creditors. To be considered a skip-trace there must be a creditor/debtor relationship.
2. People locating is the locating of people when there is no creditor/debtor relationship present.
The investigative process involved in performing a skip-trace, or people locate, is the same, with two exceptions.
First, the creditor/debtor relationship involved in performing a skip-trace allows the investigator to review the subject’s credit report. Second, the subject’s credit report provides the investigator with a list of additional (subject) creditors. The investigator then contacts these additional creditors and attempts to network (share subject information) with them in an effort to locate the subject. However, recent additions to privacy laws have greatly reduced the success of creditor networking and many creditors have enacted policies against sharing subject information
A professional investigator cannot obtain an individual’s credit report directly from a credit bureau. In addition, the investigator cannot obtain the subject’s checking and savings account information directly from a financial institution. However, the investigator is permitted to review these documents when conducting a professional skip-trace investigation for an attorney if these documents are part of the subject’s case file. Professional investigators can obtain credit headers and bank headers from information brokers for a limited number of permissible purposes that include skip-tracing and attorney locates. Credit and bank headers along with information brokers will be discussed in detail.
Tools of the Trade
For the remainder of this article I will be discussing people locating, specifically the locating of missing clients and missing witnesses conducted for attorneys.
People locating is conducted by computer with frequent telephone calls… and occasional field investigations… to verify or eliminate leads. The tools of the trade of “people locating” include a computer with a high-speed connection, online databases, a telephone and a fax machine.
For those unfamiliar with the term “online databases,” these are made up of mostly public records (government public record information) along with some personal information (credit and bank header information). This information is bought by private companies, referred to as information brokers, who then resell it in the form of online databases to professional investigators, debt collectors and law enforcement.
Credit headers are the top part of a credit report that contain an individual’s personal identifiers (name, address, date of birth and Social Security number). Bank headers are the top part of a checking or savings account application and contain the same personal identifiers as credit headers.
Credit headers and bank headers are considered personal information and are protected by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Disclosure of Nonpublic Personal Information and can be utilized by professional investigators for only a limited number of investigative purposes.
The advantage of obtaining public record information through an information broker is that these brokers have the ability to link together a variety of information from multiple sources. Information brokers then present this information in a comprehensive report that includes an individual’s possible:
Addresses (credit headers)
Uniform commercial codes
Professional investigators then review these reports to reveal possible associations and relationships between the subject and possible; addresses, employers, assets and people. These associations and relationships help the investigator develop leads that are examined, cross-referenced and eliminated or verified.
Misconceptions About Online Databases
The technology of online databases has revolutionized the way professional investigators locate people, but there are misconceptions concerning the information that they provide, their capabilities, and the reasons for accessing.
These databases, when used properly, are essential locating tools that can significantly enhance an investigator’s ability to locate people. However, outrageous claims such as “Know everything about someone” or “Get all the dirt on someone” as advertised on the Internet by scrupulous wannabe information brokers, have made the public fearful of information technology. These Internet information brokers have exaggerated the capabilities of their databases. They will sell second-rate (stored) information to anyone with a credit card. Outrageous claims and easy access to these databases have damaged the reputation of the information industry.
Information sold by legitimate information brokers is utilized by professional investigators for the purpose of conducting lawful investigations.
Online databases have assisted investigators in solving crimes and apprehending criminals. Investigators employ online databases as preliminary search tools because of their ability to search numerous public record sources in a multitude of jurisdictions. Relevant information that is revealed through online databases is then examined and cross-referenced through more reliable and more in-depth informational sources.
Investigators should not become overly reliant upon online databases or use online databases as their only public record source. It is unreliable and unconfirmed information that often contains errors. Information provided by online databases must be confirmed and supported by more reliable conventional informational sources.
The Missing Client
Missing clients can be divided into two groups.
The first group has moved from the last known address and is unaware that their attorney is trying to locate them. These missing clients are usually not difficult to locate.
The second group is made up of missing clients who are likely being sued, but may not have moved. They may have disconnected their landline (telephone), changed their cell phone number and are screening their mail in an effort to avoid the legal proceedings. Many of these missing clients have destroyed their credit and are being chased by an army of bill collectors. In addition, some have been running for so long that they have attempted to hide their assets by putting them in the name of their spouse or a relative. Some have learned advanced tactics that can confuse bill collectors and inexperienced investigators.
I have located many missing clients by knocking on the front door of their last known address…the same address provided by their attorney. These missing clients are usually not pleasant, nor happy to receive their attorney’s message.
These examples do not represent all missing clients; however, it’s important to understand that a fair percentage of them will display some of these behaviors.
The Investigative Process for Locating Missing People
People locating is a logical process of eliminating or verifying possible leads by using a specific search strategy. One of the common mistakes made by inexperienced investigators is the lack of a search strategy. They search without any direction and have limited success. The professional investigator develops a logical search strategy that serves as a blueprint for all further searches. The professional investigator patiently eliminates or verifies the most likely to the least likely lead. For example, the subject’s last known address is eliminated or verified as the subject’s current address location long before eliminating or verifying if the subject has a professional license registered with the Department of State.
The three primary informational sources used to develop a search strategy are:
Online data searching: credit headers, bank headers, online databases, directory assistance, mega search engines, websites, social networking sites.
Public records: local, county, state and federal government records, department of motor vehicle records and comprehensive reports.
People sources: relatives, neighbors, landlords, tenants, roommates, classmates, employers, employees and court clerks.
These primary informational sources are all interconnected and information is gathered, eliminated and verified by continuously reviewing and cross-referencing them. The most important thing to remember is your search strategy must be logical— A before B and B before C and so on until your missing person is located.
There is a fourth information source that consists of advanced techniques; these sources will require additional cost, tools and creativity. These techniques will call for the investigator to be skilled in the art of deception. Advanced sources include:
Pre-texting: (Verbal deception). A false cover or story to gain information
Please be advised pre-texting is an advanced investigative technique that should be utilized by experienced investigators who are familiar with the various local, state and federal privacy laws along with regulations concerning pre-texting. When pre-texting Investigators cannot
1. Pre-text for financial information
2. Pre-text for cell phone records
3. Use the name of an existing business, government or law enforcement agency
Trap line: A special phone line that traps or records the number of incoming calls
Information specialist: An individual or company that sells specific information to professional investigators; usually obtained by pre-texting.
The preliminary investigation is the first step in conducting a successful people locate. In this step the attorney’s file on the subject is reviewed by the investigator to obtain the subject’s personal identifiers, which include:
- Name and any other names known as
- Last known address and any prior known addresses
- Social Security number
- Phone/cell number
- Employment and employer
- Vehicle information including license plate number
- Physical description
If you don’t have access to the attorney’s file, type a “people locator form.” Fax it to the attorney, requesting as much of the above subject information as possible. The people locator form not only provides the subject information needed to conduct the investigation, but gives the attorney a form on which to request further locates. Normally, you will be provided with more subject information for a missing client locate then for a missing witness locate. The attorney is usually representing the client’s insurance company or the client directly and has likely spoken to the client on at least one prior occasion and has the client’s personal information on file. In most missing witness locates, the attorney hasn’t yet made contact with the witness and likely obtained the witness’s name and telephone and cell phone number from a police report. The attorney may also request an interview of the witness.
Conducting the Investigation
The following is an example of a logical search strategy.
The first question that must be answered is: “Has the subject moved from the last known address?
STEP 1: Verify or eliminate the last known address
- Directory assistance phone search of subject’s last known address to reveal the name of the person that the phone is currently listed. Telephone current resident to obtain subject’s possible current address location. (Directory assistance searches are not as effective as they once were because many people have disconnected their landline in favor of a cell phone. However, these searches are still very effective in smaller cities and towns and among people over the age of 35.
- Cellphone search (information brokers) search in subject’s name and/or in subject’s last known address. Cellphone searches have a hit percentage of about 30% at best but are getting better.
- Directory assistance neighbors phone search of subject’s last known address. Telephone neighbors to obtain subject’s possible current address location
- Property search to reveal property owner of subject’s last known address. Telephone owner to obtain subject’s possible current address locatio
STEP 2- Verify and eliminate listed addresses for subject
- Credit header & bank headers searches are used to obtain a list of all reported possible subject address locations
- Directory assistance phone searches of these address locations
- Property searches for these address locations
- Directory assistance neighbor phone searches of these address locations
There are an enormous number of public records that can be searched when conducting people locating investigations. The public records with the greatest likelihood to produce the most significant leads should be examined first. These leads are then cross-referenced and eliminated or verified before moving on to the next possible lead.
For example, a credit header search reveals that the subject has a prior reported address of 123 Main Street, Baker, NY. A property search of this address reveals that the subject owns this property and pays the property taxes on this property. In addition, a directory assistance phone search discloses that the phone number for this residence is listed in the subject’s name. These leads have been cross-referenced and verify that this address is the subject’s current address location.
Step 3- Public Record Research: Listed below are some of the most common.
- Real property searches
- Department of motor vehicle searches: license, registered vehicles, accidents
- County court searches: County court information may be available online, excellent information source, the most current and reliable information available), civil lawsuits, criminal records, property searches, judgments/liens, tax warrants, uniform commercial codes, assumed names and more.
- Comprehensive reports: Information broker reports will cost $10.00 – $20.00)
See “Tools of the Trade” Section
- Department of State Searches: Tax warrants, uniform commercial codes, professional licenses, corporations, articles of incorporation, registered agents, child support
- State court searches: Lawsuits, criminal records
- Federal court searches: Bankruptcies, civil lawsuits, criminal records
- Newspaper searches: Articles about subject, articles written by subject
- Internet searches: Mega search engines, websites, social networking, news alerts, blogs, chat groups
- Black Book Online http://www.blackbookonline.info excellent site of free and paid public record information used by professional investigators
Step 4-Special Searches: for those hard to locate clients/witnesses
- Pretexting or trapline: pretext call to subject’s relative or someone possibly associated with subject. Ask to have subject return your call (provide them with trapline phone number)
- Information specialist: Use when the conventional techniques lead to dead ends
Investigators who want to specialize in this highly requested service must have a good understanding of public records, competence in performing computer/Internet investigations and the ability to conduct extensive public record research. Continued education in missing person investigation (books, articles, seminars and online courses) is highly recommended. It is important to understand that in the realm of information the universe is always in motion, and constantly changing.
Locating people is not accomplished by luck, nor is it art. It is simply a logical process of elimination. The skills required to locate people are fundamental investigative skills.
One final thought, to paraphrase the advice given to Dorothy (“Just follow the yellow brick road)”: Just follow your logical search strategy.