Skip tracing is trying to find someone for any number of civil law reasons, including debt collection, to serve process for a lawsuit or to repossess property such as a car. Skip tracing can also refer to a bounty hunter's attempts to locate someone who skipped bail in a criminal matter. Federal debt collection laws control most civil-law skip tracing. Common law and state statutes apply to bounty hunters and the bail bondsmen who employee them.
A persons "skips out" when they sever communications in order to avoid paying a debt or making good on some other legal obligation. Many private investigation firms have developed a lucrative business in skip tracing. These situations primarily fall under the legal control of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as well as state statutes controlling the actions of licensed private investigators.
Two special types of skip tracers are "repo men," agents authorized to repossess property, and bounty hunters working for bail bondsmen to return people who have jumped bail. State laws dictate permissible actions that repo men and bounty hunters can take, and although most repo men and bounty hunters can cross state lines to chase their quarry, they must follow the laws of each state in which they are working when it comes to picking up the repossessed property or bail jumper. Bounty hunters particularly have broad legal powers that far exceed those of ordinary debt collectors, because they are searching for criminal fugitives.
Internet resources increasingly make it easier for private citizens to find missing persons. However, licensed private investigators can legally access more resources than unlicensed citizens, such as credit card, motor vehicle and employment records. Skip tracing experts also pay for expensive database subscription services that compile locating information.
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
Skip tracers trying to find people who owe money are debt collectors under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Section 804 of that law states that when communicating with third persons to attempt to find a debtor, the skip tracer must only contact each third party one time, identify himself and state only that he is trying to confirm the debtor's location, not mention the debt or amount owed, not use a post card for written communication, not place anything on the outside of an envelope that indicates the communication is for debt collection purposes and not communicate with anyone but the debtor's attorney once he learns the debtor is represented by counsel.
Skip Tracing for Repossession
People who trace skips for purposes of repossessing cars, boats and other personal possessions must also follow the Fair Debt Collection laws. However, once they find the person, additional state laws determine how they can locate and seize the property. Generally, repo men cannot locate or seize the sought items in a manner that disturbs the peace, so they can not break into buildings, homes or garages, and must discontinue their search if confronted and told to leave the premises. If the creditor obtains a court order, however, then sheriffs or constables will come to locate and seize the skipped property, and they will be authorized to enter the premises to remove the listed items.
Skip Tracing for Bail Jumpers
Bounty hunters have broad common-law powers to pursue bail jumpers across state lines and effect a citizen's arrest of the person who skipped bail. Licensed bail bondsmen and the bounty hunters they employ usually have the same or more access to records as licensed private investigators. Bounty hunters are not controlled by the limits of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act because they are seeking a criminal suspect or witness who has fled on bail, not engaging in debt collection. Some states limit the authority to seize bail skips to bail agents licensed within that state. Out-of-state bounty hunters must then contract with in-state agents to lawfully locate and seize the individual.
Law enforcement agencies can intercede when property is repossessed under a court order or in recovering a criminal bail jumper, but not for debt collection. When seeking a missing person for humanitarian reasons, law enforcement agencies can assist to the extent of their available resources. Agencies such as Social Security or the Internal Revenue Service can also cooperate with a missing person investigation, while they are precluded from sharing information with people seeking knowledge of debt skips.