I haven’t talked to my former roommate Patti in years. But it only took Bill Bartmann, a veteran of the debt collection industry, minutes to pull up her name and the address of the house we shared in the early 1990s.
Less than a day after I asked Bartmann to see what he could find about me, he provided me with a long list of the addresses of places I’d lived over the years -- including my college dorm address, which I would be very hard pressed to recall myself. He also dug up a list of relatives and details about them, including my husband and father’s ages and first five digits of their Social Security numbers; and former neighbors (some of whom I'd never met), along with their ages, first of their SSNs and their phone numbers.
He found all this using nothing more than my name, and the information was spot on. Even if you wanted to try to hide from debt collectors, it would be nearly impossible to do so.
“Every piece of data you can imagine, even your phone records, watch out -- we got it,” says Alexis Moore, a debt collection investigator and industry consultant. Most people “have no clue how cyberspace has made it simple as a click of the mouse to find anyone anywhere at anytime,” she adds.
If debt collectors want to find you, they have many tools at their disposal. If they can’t locate you, or want to learn more about your ability to pay a debt, they can turn to “skip tracing” tools as they are called in the industry. What are some of the ways they do this?
Information You Provide
Debtors themselves are one of the best sources of information, say most collectors. They start with the information provided by their customer -- the lender or company to whom the money was originally owed. This may include "credit applications, agreements, contracts, personal guarantees, purchase orders and/or emails or orders for services or products," says debt collection expert Michelle Dunn.
In fact, this is the data many collectors prefer. "Debt collectors don’t want to have to skip trace to find a consumer," says Nick Jarman, chief operations at Delta Outsource Group Inc., a collection agency. "A lot of it is counterproductive. We want to use the information provided by the original creditor."
That means that if you filled out an application listing your mom as the nearest relative not living with you, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the collector calls her when they can’t find you.
Credit Reports & Scores
A debt collector trying to collect a debt you owe typically will be able to pull your credit reports, though not all do. The reason they might not? Cost.
Both Roger Weiss, chief operations officer at collection agency CACI, and Jarman say their firms are likely to use credit scores before they will pull a consumer’s full credit reports, because the first option is cheaper. Weiss also says his firm is cautious about pulling credit because it creates credit inquiries that can lower the debtor’s credit scores. “We are very careful because we don’t want to place a hard inquiry,” he says.
But a full report can be helpful -- if a collector knows what to look for, Moore says. “A(n) experienced vet investigator knows that every piece of data is vital -- so the credit inquiries, charged-off accounts, address history, name variations all mean something and are invaluable tools.”
You can find out if a collector has reviewed your credit reports or credit scores by getting your free annual credit report from all three major credit reporting agencies. Any request for your report -- or scores -- will be visible on your report. (If you want to see how your collection accounts are impacting your credit scores, you can use a free tool like the Credit Report Card, which shows you two of your credit scores for free and explains the major factors that are helping or hurting you.)
When Bartmann, who is now president of the Center for Consumer Recovery, gathered information about me, he was tapping into just a few of the many databases that collect and sell information about consumers. “As a debt collector you can sign up for a whole litany of services,” he says. “In an era of big data they have gathered all kinds of information about us, some with your permission, sometimes without it.”
Some resources are available for free, such as WhitePages.com, Weiss points out. “Then there are paid compilation services, like when people register for (contests) or change their address.”
LexisNexis Accurint and SearchAmerica are two examples of popular databases Dunn mentioned. Accurint bills itself as a “direct connection to over 37 billion current public records” while SearchAmerica says it provides “a much more accurate model for predicting the likelihood that a consumer will pay their medical bills.”
In addition to checking what’s reported about you at the three major credit reporting agencies for free once a year, you can get free reports about yourself from some other national consumer reporting agencies, if they have data about you. But it would be a tough, and often futile, task to track down all your information from all sources.
Dodging debts? You may want to think twice about posting to social media that picture of the jewelry you just gave your girlfriend. Unless your privacy settings are high, that information may be perused by anyone, including a collector, who may be looking for information about your income, assets or spending patterns.
“Yes, bill collectors do use social media to find their debtors,” says Natasha Carmon, a writer who says she has worked a variety of collection jobs.
“In a divorce case I discovered a wife had obtained a new vehicle through pictures on her Facebook page,” says attorney Tiffany S. Franc. “The vehicle was considered marital property because the parties were still married at the time and it helped my clients negotiating position on other matters at settlement.” She also says she has used LinkedIn profiles to find where debtors are employed in an effort to garnish wages. She goes on to say:
“We peruse Facebook and social media pages and even if the consumer isn't posting about their bank account, they have often times liked their bank's page to indicate to us where they bank. And consumers with assets they really cherish -- collectibles, nice cars, motorcycles, antiques -- oftentimes place pictures of those items on their social media.”
Not all collectors use social media to track down information about debtors. Weiss and Jarman say their firms have made a “business decision” not to, in part due to security concerns. And it’s not clear at the moment what type of social media information collectors can use without violating consumer protection and privacy laws. But for the moment it’s probably safe to say that anything you post is fair game.
Even with all this information available, there’s still some that’s off limit to collectors. “The database I’d love to get ahold of is the Domino’s (Pizza) database,” says Weiss. “Everyone’s in there.”