Not all people searches are created equal. Here’s a primer on levels of service a process server or private investigator might provide.
In the business of litigation support, there are times when defendants or witnesses cannot be located or served. Maybe they live in a gated community or condominium with restricted access, or perhaps they’ve moved away from the last known address.
In the first situation, a few hours of surveillance or a pretext might be enough to gain access to the witness and get them served. But in the second case, a PI or process server may have a tougher job — putting papers into the hands of someone who could be … anywhere.
“Finding” someone can mean many things, depending on the level of service a client needs … and is willing to pay for.
“Skip tracing” at the most basic level is when a PI or process server runs a subject’s personal data through a proprietary database and identifies a new, hopefully current address. The PI might charge $125 – $150 for a quick search — which only costs the investigator a few dollars, plus the time to run the search itself. At this price point, the investigator generally provides this most likely current address to the client as an alternative address to attempt service, with no additional research or verification.
In most circumstances, this is sufficient. It’s usually cheaper for the attorney to send a process server at a flat rate for an attempted service (usually $50 – $75) at the developed address than to send a licensed investigator whose hourly rate may be significantly higher. However, if the process server can’t find the subject at the developed address, an attorney no longer needs a skip trace, but a location investigation.
A location investigation is more intensive than a skip trace and means turning to more robust databases, “open source” repositories (DMV, county clerk, state agencies), and/or social media sites. Some of these sources require a monthly subscription of several hundred dollars per month and are more geared to licensed professional investigators than to process servers. (The distinctions between private investigators and process servers and their revenue models are topics for another article.)
Investigators generally don’t do location investigations for a flat rate but will recommend a budget to the client, based on their best guess about the expected difficulty of the investigation. For instance, tracking down a middle-aged female who’s been married multiple times and lived in several states is more complex than locating a middle-aged male who owns a local business. The woman could have remarried, changed her name, and moved across the country; the business owner most likely purchased a new home in the same city.
In a location investigation, identifying a current address through a database search is only the beginning. To verify that the person actually lives there, an investigator may surveil the house or look for motor vehicles registered to the subject at that address. A social media search might turn up photos of the outside of the residence, which can be checked at a site visit or on Google Maps street view. The better databases provide “utilities” searches, along with properties and vehicles in other states that may not appear in the home state.
A location investigation could cost anywhere from $250 upward. A short case study might help illustrate why a higher cost might be necessary: Our agency once charged a client several thousand dollars to find a civil defendant, but the challenge was enormous and the need was urgent. It took months to accomplish, and we only resolved the case via a Hail Mary pass that, fortunately, worked.
The defendant was an Asian national who had gone “off the grid” — no vehicle, no recent address, no employment, no social media that we could identify. (There were hundreds of profiles with identical names from all over Asia.) The only address that seemed consistent was a post box at a packing store, which provided an out-of-date address to the client. Our one clue was that the subject had renewed a health care license.
After receiving authorization for the expense from the client, we purchased a small “care bear” and packed a small GPS device inside. I wrote a pretext letter stating that we were looking for health care professionals in the subject’s area and encouraged the subject to contact the fictional agency. We activated the GPS, packed the letter and bear into a small box, and sent it off.
I spent two days nervously watching the tracking device as the package moved through the mail system to the postal store. Finally, late on a Friday afternoon, the package appeared at an apartment complex about half a mile away.
On Monday, accompanied by a certified process server, I knocked on several doors before finding the elusive defendant. “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Fortunately, most cases are far less complicated than that one and can be resolved for a few hundred dollars at most.
When meeting with a client (or a vendor) about a location investigation, you’ll want to do the following:
1. Ask what efforts have already been made to locate the subject.
Did a process server take notes about what happened when he attempted service? Those notes can be extremely helpful for a location investigation, especially if the process server documented license tags on vehicles parked at the location or wrote down physical descriptions of the residents.
2. Discuss a proposed budget.
Let clients know up front that the cost for a location investigation will probably be more than for a skip trace. Setting a budget provides parameters to investigators and assurance to clients that they won’t be receiving a bill far exceeding expectations. The budget, however, should be realistic, reflecting the facts and urgency of the search and the prior attempts made.
3. Maintain contact with the attorney and/or client.
Keep clients apprised of how the search is going and any difficulties you encounter. This lets them know that you’re a professional and are considerate of their time and resources.
For the busy investigator, location investigations are challenging and can be fun as well as profitable. Many times they can be conducted from the comfort of your office. Putting together the puzzle of a subject’s relationships, employment, assets, and hobbies to come up with a location is rewarding, especially when you can help a client resolve a problem.
About the author:
Mark J. Murnan (President, Chief Investigator) is president and chief investigator of Complete Legal Investigations, Inc. in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He’s a Certified Legal Investigator (CLI®) and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE®). Mark studied criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and served in the United States Air Force, where he attended the Defense Language Institute and was subsequently assigned to the Air Force Security Service (now the Electronic Security Command). He’s the author of Marketing to Plaintiff Attorneys, and co-creator of “Investigators in Cars, Drinking Coffee.” Subscribe to that YouTube channel here or email him at email@example.com.