Being a landlord is easy money, right? Not always.
Sometimes tenants simply won’t pay what they owe. Then come court hearings and evictions. Often the tenant skips town, owing thousands of dollars. What next?
If you file for a money judgment against the tenants, how do you go about actually finding the delinquent tenants when they’ve disappeared into the woodwork?
Enter skip tracing. It might sound like “Dick Tracy” by coincidence, but it actually does bear resemblance to the comic book detective (minus the block-like jaw).
Skip tracing is a relatively new name for an old concept. The term isn’t found in Merriam-Webster, for example, but is in Wikipedia. Skip tracing simply means finding a disappeared delinquent (the “skip”) by tracing their movements and locating them. Sure enough, its roots are in the expression “to skip town,” which implies that someone left without a trace, usually because he or she doesn’t wish to be found. Like, for example, a tenant who didn’t bother to pay their rent or owes you money for damages.
If you’re thinking that skip tracing sounds an awful lot like bounty hunting, BountyHunterEdu.org (yes, there really is a website for people interested in that career path) makes a distinction between the two. While bounty hunters also track down missing delinquents, skip tracers aren’t bounty hunters. Skip tracing only involves locating someone, but bounty hunters also have to actually apprehend their targets.
Thanks to the Internet, skip tracers can access a great deal of information quickly and easily. They might search credit reports, public tax records, utility bills, vehicle registrations and more. They often monitor social media activity. But access to all of the information comes with a catch. Although public and even some private records are up for grabs, privacy and surveillance laws still apply. A good skip tracer will be familiar with them and knows how to gather the information legally.
Can you serve as your own skip tracer? Should you? The answers are “maybe” and “probably not, but maybe.” Although the Internet makes a lot of personal information easily accessible either for free or at a price, trying to determine which sites are reliable or whether the information is up-to-date is a different ball game. Some information, such as financial records, can’t legally be obtained without specific authority. Online records searches can also be pricey. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your costs can quickly mount.
However, if your tenant stole away in the night, you can’t even serve them court papers without knowing where they are. In that case, you can do some simple skip tracing with the information the tenant provided you on the rental application, which is probably where a skip tracer would begin anyway. (Did you forget that step? Be prepared next time and have the tenant fill out a rental application.) Call any phone numbers that might be on the form – employers, relatives, references, etc. One of those might be able to tell you the ex-tenant’s whereabouts.
Another common technique: try sending a piece of mail to the tenant’s address you have on file and type “Return Service Requested” on the envelope. If the tenant submitted a forwarding address to the United States Postal Service, the mail should be returned to you with the new address. There is a specific manner in which this must be done, so check USPS guidelines.
There are also many public records that can be accessed for free. Searching them can be time-consuming and may not yield any results, however. Because most court information is a matter of public record, check the website of any state, county or city where your tenant has lived. And although it’s unlikely you’ll find anything, you can check city and county property tax records.
All of this records-checking is pretty time-consuming, which is why there are so many private companies that will search records for you… for a fee. You can sign up for subscription services or pay per search. There are no guarantees that you’ll find anything, so weigh whether the investment will be worth it.
You can also hand off the job to a private skip tracer or to a collection agency, which will no doubt enlist the services of a skip tracer to do the searching. Although you’ll have to pay a portion of anything that’s collected, getting some money back is better than none. At the very least you can have the satisfaction that the tenant's delinquency is now on their credit report, and other landlords or lenders can avoid the same fate.
Even if you are able to successfully locate the tenant, you may never see your money. Yet another hard truth of landlording: sometimes you have to know when to walk away. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but the fact is that it’s very difficult to collect money from someone who doesn’t want to pay.
As a final thought, you can consider registering the cancelled the debt with the IRS. If you have the tenant’s Social Security number, you can file a 1099-C form so that the tenant will have to claim the forgiven debt as income. A small act of revenge may be just enough to sweeten the situation – no skip tracing required.