Skip Tracing -- Or, How to Solve a Puzzle

by Nic Smith and Joanne Parrent

The term skip tracing originated during the early collection agency days, well before collection agencies were regulated in California by the Collection Agency Act (1949).

The most difficult part of any collection agencies' tasks then and now was to locate debtors who had "skipped." The dictionary cites the third most common usage of "skipped" as to "go away hastily and secretly; flee without notice." Many collection agencies farmed out their "skip tracing" to private investigators.

In the legal and investigative professions now, the word "locate" is used frequently to describe the same function as skip tracing -- to find someone who used to be at one location and isn't there anymore.

Skip tracing, however, is not just about searching for debtors who have fled the scene. Frequently, investigators are looking for witnesses in a civil or criminal action who have moved, for lost relatives or even for companies that have gone out of business. In one case this year, we located a son for parents who had lost touch with him. In another case, we located a judgment debtor who, unfortunately for our client to whom she owed a substantial sum of money, was homeless.

Finding A Dead Man

The following case shows how important it is to have the right information when beginning the search for someone.

Our client, a national life insurance firm, called to ask if we could verify that someone was actually deceased. The insured, Joe Doe, was an advertising consultant in San Francisco. He had disappeared almost six- years prior and the seven-year waiting period required to declare someone deceased, absent the body, was quickly approaching. The beneficiary of the $2 million dollar policy was the executive's business partner.

The executive's automobile had been found parked under the Golden Gate bridge, and the assumption was that he had thrown himself into the water and his body had been carried out to sea by the strong Bay tide present in that area. Fellow employees reported him as being depressed and gloomy prior to his disappearance.

The San Francisco police department had previously interviewed the "deceased's" wife and a review of that report struck us as very shallow.

Nic Smith contacted the wife and requested the opportunity to re-interview her. She consented and Nic set up an appointment. As we always do, we spent a good 20 minutes building rapport with the wife.

During the course of the interview we began discussing how the husband's disappearance had affected the children. The wife had said that she thought they were doing all right and then she blurted out, "You know, on Jeff's (a son) last birthday I got this very strong sense that he was looking down on us." When Nic asked her why she had that sense she replied, "Well, you know, he had a pilot's license."

The wife also disclosed that Joe Doe was not his real name. He had come from Germany when he was about four years of age and had simply adopted the name Joe Doe. When she was asked if she had any documents proving that, she happily went through a stack of papers and produced a birth certificate with a very different name on it.

At the conclusion of the interview, Nic returned to the office and contacted the FAA to find out whether or not Joe Doe's prior incarnation, the name from Germany, had a license to fly aircraft. The reply was in the affirmative and an address in Seattle, WA was provided.

We had our associates in Seattle make contact at the address provided by the FAA (with a photo of Joe Doe in hand) and they were able to confirm that the subject, now operating under his birth name, did live at the address. When confronted, he told our associates the whole story of "just wanting to start over."

Our perseverance and interviewing skills saved our client $2,000,000!!

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