When Debtors Go AWOL

When you owe people money you want to hide in a corner and hope that something happens to change your situation. Hey that ten dollars worth of lotto tickets is going to come through this time.  A lot of people take the road of avoidance as a way to deal with past due bills in hopes their creditor may not be able to get at them. In three years of collections I found people who would go to amazing lengths to avoid paying a bill. The most creative people would actually move their house with out notifying us – we collected on mobile homes. The most common ways are to move and install renters, cancel your phone(s), and change jobs. When a debtor goes AWOL(Absent Without Leave) collection companies and creditors don’t give up, they get down to some good old fashioned skip tracing.

Skip tracing is the art of locating the unlocateable. Commonly used by bounty hunters as well as collectors it is as much an art of social engineering and ingenuity as it being a private investigator. To succeed at skip tracing you have to walk a fine line between legal and illegal to determine the location of the debtor. Most of the time the process is a lot easier than you would initially think but sometimes you really have to work at it. People who really don’t want to be found can make it down right impossible to get ahold of them.

Common Methods of Skip Tracing

  • Whitepages – This may seem to simple but a lot of people just don’t tell you when their numbers have changed. The easiest way to check it out is to look them up in the phone book. This method is a little more difficult now with so many people relying on their cellular phones as a means of communication. The phone book can help locate people who moved as well, especially if you know the city they moved to.
  • Old Phone Numbers – It seems counterproductive at first but moving backwards in time through old phone numbers you have on file will usually produce a few good leads. People may have been living with their mother, or used their mom’s house as contact number for a bit of time.
  • Employer – While not entirely a skip tracing method it is a viable means of contact. In some cases you can scroll back through old employers numbers in attempts to make contact. People can jump back and forth between jobs or you may get lucky and catch someone who is still a friend and give you a good contact number.
  • References – Do you remember when you filled out that loan form and they asked you for two-four references. Those lenders didn’t ask because they wanted to call and check up on how you acted when you were a kid. They got those contacts so they can hound them if you ever decide to go AWOL. Once the phone book has been exhausted it is time to get on the references. The initial numbers will be tried first, if those numbers are disconnected then it is back to the phone book to try there. If you still can’t find them it is time to expand your search.
  • Neighbors – When the references are all used up you can move outward towards neighbors. You can actually pull neighborhood searches based on an initial address. If you know where the debtor lives they pull addresses, names, and numbers for the surrounding residents. You then begin to call each of those contacts asking for contact information for the debtor.  You can’t really talk about who you are or why you are looking but the inference is there.
  • County Tax Office – The county tax office keeps records of the updated address for anyone paying/owing property taxes. When renters move in the county will typically still maintain a valid address for the property owner so they can continue to collect taxes. A skip tracer will then take that information and start back at the beginning to try to locate the debtor at the new address.
  • Credit Reports – When everything else fails you can pull a credit report. The credit report will disclose any new accounts the debtor has opened. The report will typically include the last reported employer as well information on other debts owed including information on how to contact those creditors. Using the newly gleaned information you can contact the debtor at work or start contacting additional creditors in hopes of sweet talking a contact number out of them.
  • Field Agents – When all else fails it is time to take to the field. Back when I was doing collections we saved the agents for the farthest past due accounts because it is expensive and takes a lot of work to get someone out there knocking on doors. The field agents are going to visit the home, leave notes,  and in some cases knock on a few neighbors doors.

The true art of skip tracing is the ability to deal with people. When you get someone on the phone who you have no real business with you have to be able to gently persuade them to give you the information you need. The saddest part of this whole process is 3/4 of the time the contact is to help the debtor out of their situation not make it worse. Just know even when you go AWOL the creditors are going to work to find you and collect their debt. When all else fails there is always court, and in extreme situations wage garnishment.


1 MLR October 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm

My *favorite* tactic that debt collectors use is when a person tells them that they wish not to be contacted by anything but certified mail and they keep harassing them with phone calls every 5 minutes.

Most debt collection companies are more immoral than the people who went AWOL, in my opinion. If you ask them what the FDCPA is.. they’ll probably give you a blank stare.

This post should serve as a great resource for people who need to be convinced why they should not default on any debt. Collection agencies are not fun to work with! 🙂

2 Student Car Insurance October 20, 2009 at 5:19 pm


Exactly right, let this serve as a reminder to all of us that there are consequences for defaulting on a debt!

3 kenyantykoon October 22, 2009 at 3:50 am

these days creditors are using social networking sites to hunt down the people that owe them money and according to that article(it was on msn) this method is working very well because few people take time to research everyone that sends them a friend request

4 Andrew @ Financial Services November 3, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Social network and media is the way to go. It’s practically impossible for anyone nowadays not to be on Google or Facebook. Well it can help, not unless the one you’re tracking has gone of to some mountain or backwater..

5 Kenny July 7, 2010 at 9:09 am

Acording to the FDCPA or Fair Debt Collection Practices Act if a debt collector fails to give you the mini miranda or threatens or intimidates in any way that company owes you $1000. My suggestion to everyone is see to it you don’t stop communicating with the people you went into business with in the first place.

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