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.”