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Why you can't hide from debt collectors

Santa Claus knows when you've been good or bad, but he's got nothing on these guys. Debt collectors have many tools at their disposal if they need to find you.

By Mar 25, 2014 11:20AM

This post comes from Gerri Detweiler at partner site on MSN MoneyI haven’t talked to my former roommate Patti in years. But it only took Bill Bartmann, a veteran of the debt collection industry, minutes to pull up her name and the address of the house we shared in the early 1990s.

Past due stamp sitting on three bills. © Derek E. Rothchild, Stockbyte, Getty ImagesLess than a day after I asked Bartmann to see what he could find about me, he provided me with a long list of the addresses of places I’d lived over the years -- including my college dorm address, which I would be very hard pressed to recall myself. He also dug up a list of relatives and details about them, including my husband and father’s ages and first five digits of their Social Security numbers; and former neighbors (some of whom I'd never met), along with their ages, first of their SSNs and their phone numbers.

He found all this using nothing more than my name, and the information was spot on. Even if you wanted to try to hide from debt collectors, it would be nearly impossible to do so.

"Every piece of data you can imagine, even your phone records, watch out -- we got it," says Alexis Moore, a debt collection investigator and industry consultant. Most people “have no clue how cyberspace has made it simple as a click of the mouse to find anyone anywhere at anytime,” she adds.

If debt collectors want to find you, they have many tools at their disposal. If they can’t locate you, or want to learn more about your ability to pay a debt, they can turn to "skip tracing" tools as they are called in the industry. What are some of the ways they do this?

Information you provide

Debtors themselves are one of the best sources of information, say most collectors. They start with the information provided by their customer -- the lender or company to whom the money was originally owed. This may include "credit applications, agreements, contracts, personal guarantees, purchase orders and/or emails or orders for services or products," says debt collection expert Michelle Dunn.

In fact, this is the data many collectors prefer. "Debt collectors don’t want to have to skip trace to find a consumer," says Nick Jarman, chief operations at Delta Outsource Group, a collection agency. "A lot of it is counterproductive. We want to use the information provided by the original creditor."

That means that if you filled out an application listing your mom as the nearest relative not living with you, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the collector calls her when they can’t find you.

Credit reports and scores

A debt collector trying to collect a debt you owe typically will be able to pull your credit reports, though not all do. The reason they might not? Cost.

Both Roger Weiss, chief operations officer at collection agency CACI, and Jarman say their firms are likely to use credit scores before they will pull a consumer’s full credit reports, because the first option is cheaper. Weiss also says his firm is cautious about pulling credit because it creates credit inquiries that can lower the debtor's scores. “We are very careful because we don’t want to place a hard inquiry,” he says.

But a full report can be helpful -- if a collector knows what to look for, Moore says. "A(n) experienced vet investigator knows that every piece of data is vital -- so the credit inquiries, charged-off accounts, address history, name variations all mean something and are invaluable tools."

You can find out if a collector has reviewed your credit reports or credit scores by getting your free annual credit report from all three major credit reporting agencies. Any request for your report -- or scores -- will be visible on your report. (If you want to see how your collection accounts are impacting your credit scores, you can use a free tool like the Credit Report Card, which shows you two of your credit scores for free and explains the major factors that are helping or hurting you.)


When Bartmann, who is now president of the Center for Consumer Recovery, gathered information about me, he was tapping into just a few of the many databases that collect and sell information about consumers. "As a debt collector you can sign up for a whole litany of services,” he says. “In an era of big data they have gathered all kinds of information about us, some with your permission, sometimes without it."

Some resources are available for free, such as, Weiss points out. "Then there are paid compilation services, like when people register for (contests) or change their address."

LexisNexis Accurint and SearchAmerica are two examples of popular databases Dunn mentioned. Accurint bills itself as a “direct connection to over 37 billion current public records” while SearchAmerica says it provides “a much more accurate model for predicting the likelihood that a consumer will pay their medical bills.”

In addition to checking what’s reported about you at the three major credit reporting agencies for free once a year, you can get free reports about yourself from some other national consumer reporting agencies, if they have data about you. But it would be a tough, and often futile, task to track down all your information from all sources.

Social media

Dodging debts? You may want to think twice about posting to social media that picture of the jewelry you just gave your girlfriend. Unless your privacy settings are high, that information may be perused by anyone, including a collector, who may be looking for information about your income, assets or spending patterns.

“Yes, bill collectors do use social media to find their debtors,” says Natasha Carmon, a writer who says she has worked a variety of collection jobs.

"In a divorce case I discovered a wife had obtained a new vehicle through pictures on her Facebook page," says attorney Tiffany S. Franc. "The vehicle was considered marital property because the parties were still married at the time and it helped my clients negotiating position on other matters at settlement." She also says she has used LinkedIn profiles to find where debtors are employed in an effort to garnish wages. She goes on to say:

"We peruse Facebook and social media pages and even if the consumer isn't posting about their bank account, they have often times liked their bank's page to indicate to us where they bank. And consumers with assets they really cherish -- collectibles, nice cars, motorcycles, antiques -- oftentimes place pictures of those items on their social media."

Not all collectors use social media to track down information about debtors. Weiss and Jarman say their firms have made a "business decision" not to, in part due to security concerns. And it’s not clear at the moment what type of social media information collectors can use without violating consumer protection and privacy laws. But for the moment it’s probably safe to say that anything you post is fair game.

Even with all this information available, there’s still some that’s off limit to collectors. "The database I’d love to get ahold of is the Domino’s (Pizza) database," says Weiss. "Everyone’s in there."

More from

Mar 25, 2014 12:03PM
Debt Collectors and Credit Score Scam Artist know more about us then the Government. Yet nobody has marched on Washington to stop it. The fall of America Continues.
Mar 25, 2014 3:48PM
Can't hide from debt collectors...??? Really???? Because for 10 damn years now, debt collectors have been calling my house and sending mail to my house for a Marquesha Johnston. She's obviously hiding pretty darn good, since my house has been in my family since 1948, the phone number has been the same since 1971, and no one in my family is or has ever been a Johnston or a Marquesha. Can't hide from debt collectors, huh? Riiiiiight...
Mar 25, 2014 3:30PM
they can try all they want , but they cant do a thing keep you money in your checking account at a very low balance or use money orders .dont call them or contact them just ignore them soon they will lose you as an account and be passed on to another!  it will and can go on for years and years, if they call you on the phone dont talk to them just hang up soon you will see their number all the time and not answer to it at all.
Mar 25, 2014 3:19PM
Not So! why because There are 2 agencies that call my phone # [landline] 2 or 3 times a week. Both ask for 2 different people to collect from. Obviuosly when I got this ph# with TWC it must still post the last losers names on my new 1 year old #. Bastards just keep calling and I have fun recording them and talking away so I can post it on my FB page so all can enjoy listening to these ashloes talk away.
Mar 25, 2014 3:42PM
Maybe if this clown would create jobs people wouldn't have to dodge collectors!!!!
Mar 25, 2014 3:02PM
My debts will be paid in full soon because of retirement plans ahead of me. Soon I will have no debts and no job to worry about. It kind of leaves a warm and fuzzy feeling inside of me.
Mar 25, 2014 8:58PM
My  brother has four debt collectors looking for him since he was laid off at his so call we are the UNION we will protect your job company. They haven't found him yet. I know this because there're 4 people who they keep calling trying to find him. I Know where he his but hell if I am going to tell them. Besides I like screwing with the collectors with my own questions to which after a while they just hang up. 
Mar 25, 2014 8:54PM
It's been my experience that it is usually honest people trying to abide by the system who can be found.
Mar 25, 2014 3:35PM

Who researches this crap??? I know at least three people off the top of my head that collectors can't find.They get their info from Public Records..the same way I can get theirs as long as I have their name. This is not rocket science.


Mar 25, 2014 9:39PM
They can call all they want.  I never answer the phone.  I just use it to call out.  I don't even have the ringer turned on.  Besides, I pay all my bills unless they are bogus!  One time I signed up for 36 months of MSN for a $400 dollar rebate.  Come month 36, MSN tried to tell me the 36 month period didn't start until I cashed the rebate check.  Ha.  I told them to go fly a kite and told Chase that I wasn't paying that bogus termination fee that MSN forced onto my new credit card without a security code unless they could show me a record of a non-forced credit card transaction.  That was the last I heard of that!
Mar 26, 2014 9:09AM
And you think the NSA is bad. These people have access to information and use tactics that even  NSA would be reluctant to use. I have received calls from collectors trying to collect on a debt owed by my neighbor. They wanted me to inform my neighbor they were trying to contact her and left a number she could contact them. I feel this in a invasion of my neighbors privacy,and mine. My neighbors business is hers and not mine. Needless to say I delivered no message. Caller ID is probably the collectors worst enemy.
Mar 25, 2014 6:57PM
yes, please do come and find me, come to my house in person and take my money from me, i would enjoy that very much
Mar 26, 2014 10:22AM
Yes, debt collectors know a great deal.  It is most unfortunate that a considerable amount of that great deal is inaccurate, and they use it to harass people who owe nothing.  What we need is a serious law, with serious teeth requiring these dregs to use accurate information under penalty of both civil AND criminal law.
Mar 26, 2014 10:57AM
Debt collection attorneys are scum bags that can't make it as real lawyers. Some of these firms buy debt for a nickel on the dollar then add on fees and demand full payment.  How is this legal? It does nothing for the original creditor and is unearned and undeserved exorbitant profit to these scam artists. 
Mar 26, 2014 9:43AM
Debt Collectors and Credit Score Scam Artist know more about us then the Government. Yet nobody has marched on Washington to stop it. The fall of America Continues.
Knowing who you are and actually getting money from you are two different things.
Max Hobbs
Maybe if you actually paid your bills you wouldn't have to worry???"

First of all, I zero problems paying any Legit Bills. However I have a Huge problem with entities being able to behave worst than a Corrupt entity like our Government NSA Program. I have a HUGE problem that just a mere check of Credit can lower a person's score. I have a huge problem that folks are using these type of entities to scam folks and prevent them from now even having a Job. How can folks work hard to pay off their debts when Scam Credit Scores are now also being used to prevent some folks from having a Job?

It's so easy to assume why folks have issues about something when you never ask nor really care why. This has gotten out of Control and it's all controlled by Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Jail.

Mar 26, 2014 11:55AM
Get your personal info off Face book Classmates linked-in and any other site that hands these collectors your updated personal information. Change your phone number or front it with a buffer number letting the calls go to voice mail. Get a PO Box and change your mail to now go to that box. Keep an accurate record of everything they send, call or threaten.  This is good advice. Find an internet attorney that will sue these collection agencies. Most collectors operate out of their car with a cell phone after buying lists of delinquent accounts. The larger agencies will settle if sued by an attorney who knows the FDCPA laws
Mar 26, 2014 8:10AM
Some of these people belong in jail. When you get a new phone number you get these collectors who think your someone else. Harassment calls morning, noon and night to the wrong people. "We know she is there" or tell Sally to come to the phone".  One time the hardware store had our number under someone else and we corrected it and those jerks stopped calling.
Mar 26, 2014 7:50AM
So MSN, steals stories off of yahoo?  This was on yahoo last week.
Mar 26, 2014 12:02PM


Mar 26, 2014 9:25AM
DEBT COLLECTORS? - I'm one of them... I have been after public figure (Past) Senator Satveer Chaudhary of Minnesota for the  four thousand dollars he owes me for work he hired me to do on his 2010 political campaign (which he lost)  and will not pay me. I've tried, humiliation, threats, harassment, pleas, ethic's etc. He's a lawyer. Where did he learn this attitude of ignoring responsibilities -- 101 Law School?   Maybe blogger out there may have an idea or two.
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