Landlording & Rental Properties

The Art of Skip Tracing: How to Track Down Tenants Who Owe You Money

Expertise: Business Management, Landlording & Rental Properties, Real Estate News & Commentary, Real Estate Marketing, Personal Development, Real Estate Investing Basics
106 Articles Written

Property managers wear a lot of hats. We’re experts—or at least skilled amateurs—in everything from home remodeling to marketing to debt collections. And from time to time, we have to go above and beyond in one or more of our areas. For example, when you do an occupancy check on a tenant who’s behind in their rent and you find it empty and trashed, what comes next?

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If you don’t know what you’re doing, the answer is either “a very shame-faced call to a client” or “a boatload of money spent on hiring a private investigator”—or both. But if you’re familiar with the art and science of skip tracing, you might be able to save yourself some money and some face. So what does a skip trace consist of?

Start With the Rental Application (and Move-In Video)

Almost no one, no matter how determined they are to get away with some shenanigans, can fill out a rental application without including some amount of accurate information. Starting with the rental application, the first step is to double-check everything and see if there are any easy leads. Call every person and organization referenced and ask if they know how to get in touch with the person (and if they’re willing, spend a few minutes and ask them about the person’s passions, birthday, friends, job, and anything else you might be able to use to identify them!). Paste their email addresses and phone numbers into Google and see if and where they come up.

Related: What to Do When Vacating Tenants Owe More Money Than Their Deposit Will Cover

Take their name and brainstorm every variation of that name that you can come. Samantha Rebecca Williams can become everything from S. Becca Billings to Sam Williamson. Take the time to paste every one of those names into Google, and see if any obvious social media or other profiles come up that are identifiable. Finally, get a clean snapshot of them—if you have to, take a frame out of their move-in video and crop it; do what you have to—and paste it into Google Reverse Image Search. It’s a long shot, but if you manage to get an image that’s almost entirely their face, you can sometimes find someone using Google or (another reverse image search engine).

Take That Information And…

  • If it’s an address or a phone number, run it through the Reverse Listings to see if the name that comes up matches what you think it should. If it doesn’t, don’t be surprised, especially if this person just moved recently. Data on the internet can take a long time to catch up to reality.
  • If it’s an interest or passion, feed it, along with any variations of their name that seem to be getting a decent amount of action, into Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter’s search engines. Look for any bits of information that you recognize.
  • If it’s an email, feed it into Google minus everything after the “@” to see if the person uses that as their username anywhere online.

Related: Landlords: Use These Tenant Deposit Policies & Reduce Lost Profit!

Then, Follow the Threads

Each bit of information you find might be the piece that leads to a decent discovery. The key items that you are looking for—the ones that will actually get you in touch with someone who owes and skipped—are these:

  • Any form of communication that you can send to anonymously or under a pseudonym, that shows you instantly whether they reply. For example, an ICQ address, a Skype username, or a chatroom that someone using their moniker is signed into. Twitter and Facebook Messenger qualify. You might have to spend a while chatting with them—it helps to Google whatever subject they bring up and express interest in it—but you can usually get them to talk about something relevant. Everyone likes to complain about their job, for example. If you can nail that bit of information, you can use it to start a new set of searches.
  • Any social media page where they post their plans, regular hangouts, address, or place of employment.
  • Any relative or friend who is willing to simply tell you where they live currently or their current phone number, which is often just as good.

If you can unambiguously name a place that your former tenant is very likely to be at a given time, you can serve them court papers—which means you win. It’s a lot of work to go to, but if you have reason to believe that catching up with them will get a good chunk of your repair costs paid, it can be quite worth your while to add yet another hat to that huge rack in the corner of your property management office.

Have you ever successfully tracked down a tenant who owes you money?

Let us know with a comment!

While in the mortgage business, Drew rose to a VP position at the first broker he worked for and then started his own company. In the pursuit of excellence, he obtained several mortgage designations and joined mortgage & several affiliate association Boards. He also did WebX presentations and public speaking. It was during this time he started personally investing in single-family rentals, leading him to also start Royal Rose Property Management with two partners. He also joined the Board of a local real estate investors association, eventually becoming its President. The real estate crash led to an offer from the banking industry to manage a Michigan bank’s failed bank assets they acquired from the FDIC. The bank acquired four failed banks from the FDIC, increasing from $100M in assets to over $2B while he was there. After that, he took over as President of Royal Rose Property Management. Today, he speaks at national property management conventions and does WebX presentations.
    Darren Sager Investor from Summit, NJ
    Replied over 5 years ago
    Great article Drew! I didn’t know about Have to make use of that!
    Curt Smith Rental Property Investor from Clarkston, GA
    Replied over 5 years ago
    Least in GA or in our Atlanta metro counties, take your judgement to the local main DMV office and show them the judgment and ask to see the “manager” then ask for the past renters current address, make and model of current cars, license numbers. Here in GA you can get the sheriff to go with you to local bank branches you know they have a bank account and empty the account up to your judgement. You can attach liens on the cars and eventually get them towed. I’m not familiar with the process of then selling the towed car.
    Curt Smith Rental Property Investor from Clarkston, GA
    Replied over 5 years ago
    i’d like to know how to find out what bank account a past renter has “now”. Certainly not the bank account they had when they MIA’d. My app gets: SSN, drivers license, date of birth, past landlord phone numbers etc, and a signature that allows me to pull a full credit report via or other. The DMV trick that and paying to get their current address, where you’ll have a garnishment sumons served.
    Brandon Hall CPA from Raleigh, NC
    Replied over 5 years ago
    What happens when you serve them and they still don’t pay? I had an old roommate scam me. We sued him, served him, won the case since he never showed up… but what comes next?
    Drew Sygit Property Manager from Birmingham, MI
    Replied over 5 years ago
    CURT: here in Michigan an attorney can send a subpoena to any bank branch to inquire about any accounts in a defendant’s name. The bank has to respond and cover all their branches. It is hit and miss though as it takes time and money and there are still a lot of banks out there! So unfortunately there is no easy solution we’re aware of.
    Drew Sygit Property Manager from Birmingham, MI
    Replied over 5 years ago
    BRANDON: Not that this is legal advice, but once you have a money judgment in Michigan, you then have to go back to court to garnish wages, bank accounts or other assets.
    Ro Rueda from Houston, Texas
    Replied over 5 years ago
    Great post Drew! I just located someone in the Houston Metro area by checking out their FB page, getting their husband’s name and then running it through the county records website. This provided me with a rental property address and with his parents’ address. Needless to say, when she got served at her in-laws residence the response was immediate.
    Dala Neeta
    Replied over 5 years ago
    Abolish rent! There is enough housing for all and we could end homelessness tomorrow!!!! You all at Bigger Pockets are greedy scum who are contributing to homelessness and the ruination of peoples lives! Also how do you like being a creepy stalker!! SCUM!!!
    Drew Sygit Property Manager from Birmingham, MI
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    @DALA NEETA: now that is a funny comment!