The Art of Skip Tracing: How to Track Down Tenants Who Owe You Money
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.
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 TinEye.com (another reverse image search engine).
Take That Information And…
- If it’s an address or a phone number, run it through the Superpages.com 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.
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!