Process servers need creativity, logic, communication skills and persistence to complete an efficient serve every time.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could serve papers on the first attempt every time? It’s good to have dreams. But as we all know very well, not every serve goes as planned — from time to time, difficult people make for difficult situations.
As a process server, I find that my skills at times are tested by folks who’ve decided to delay the inevitable. When these difficult serves arise, I try to remember that I am an investigator first. Process servers and investigators alike need creativity, logic, communication skills and persistence to complete an efficient serve every time.
Planning and Preparation
Before heading out on any assignment, I always ask the client if the following information is available on the person I’m about to serve:
- Name, address and personal phone numbers
- Work address and work phone number
- Aliases or nicknames
- What kind of vehicle do they drive? Year, make, model, color or other unique identifiers are helpful, too.
- Does the client have a picture or physical description of the person to be served?
- Is there a specific time service should be made?
- Have they been avoiding service, or are they expecting and agreeable to it?
- Can the documents be sub-served?
- Is the individual known to be violent?
I also like to do a quick pre-surveillance check of the area where I’ll be serving. I use several simple Internet tools for this, including Google Maps, Google Street View, and Microsoft’s Bing Maps. These tools help me get familiar with the surroundings, alert me to any potential hazards, and may identify other entry points to the address.
A prepared process server is a successful process server.
Unwilling and Evasive People
Our standard service of process rates are based on three diligent attempts over a period of six days at varying times. What happens if I don’t get the person served on the third attempt or they appear to evading service? I’ll keep trying, but the fee may go up.
Here are a few techniques I use when I’m struggling to get a person served:
Search public records.
Before charging any additional costs to my client, I quickly check the local clerk’s public records online. I search for pending court cases and updated information. I’ve found pending cases on many folks and ended up serving them in court right before their appearance. In searching these free public records, I’ve also found updated addresses that our client may not have had.
Do a simple Internet search.
This sounds basic, but you can often find the exact information you need about a person just by Googling them. For example, I found someone’s current employment address just by viewing their LinkedIn profile.
Talk to neighbors.
Knock on doors in the neighborhood and ask about the person you’re trying to serve. Sometimes you’ll find out the person is on vacation or works odd hours.
Be cautious when talking to neighbors; they don’t need to know anything about the case or the true nature of your visit. You don’t necessarily want the neighbor to put your defendant on notice.
Document all evidence that supports the fact that the person you’ve been trying to serve is evading service. Attorneys can often file a pleading to the court about an evasive defendant, but they’ll need your factual information in order to do so.
Always work out a cost-effective plan with your client to deal with unwilling or evasive individuals. Do this ahead of time, in your standard briefing with the client.
If you’ve done everything on the list above and still haven’t been able to serve the person, try the following:
Find out if a request for a change of address has been filed with the post office.
Skip trace the subject using a dependable nationwide database provider. This can often yield additional billable hours or service fees.
Do a stakeout. We often complete a difficult service after a short surveillance and “service by ambush.” This is another lucrative add-on service.
If you have phone numbers for the person, use creative pretexting techniques.
Be innovative. By putting your investigative expertise and creativity to work, you can often catch the person off guard.
Most of all, always follow the laws and regulations in your state:
- NEVER represent yourself as a law enforcement officer, clergyman, employee, or member of an actual company.
- MAINTAIN CONFIDENTIALITY. Do not reveal personal or intimate information about your subject to individuals having no right to or need for such information.
- NEVER pretext to obtain information from financial institutions, telephone companies, or other parties protected by the GLBA.
Process service is often a cat-and-mouse game. But there’s a good chance you’ll outsmart an evasive or unwilling recipient by using creative techniques, thinking quickly, and being persistent. If you’re in doubt about using an unusual method to serve papers, consult with your attorney to ensure you’re operating within the laws and regulations of your jurisdiction.
A version of this article first appeared in PursuitMag in 2009.
About the author:
Stephanie Mitchell is the operations manager at Storyboard EMP, LLC. She’s the advertising representative for Pursuit Magazine and operations manager of PI Education. Stephanie has 22 years of combined experience as a manager, private investigator and paralegal. In her leisure hours, she’s devoted to her family and her dogs. She plays soccer, enjoys the outdoors, kayaking, hiking, and exploring.