As I explained in my previous article, Introduction to Skip Tracing, classifying your subject as “intentionally missing” or “unintentionally missing” is very important and will assist you in determining which action to take and what information you will need in order to bring a missing persons assignment to a successful conclusion.
I’d like to describe each type of missing person in the “intentionally missing” category and briefly discuss the typical methodology used while looking for these types of people.
Fugitives are persons who are actively concealing themselves in an effort to avoid criminal prosecution. In the private sector this often involves bail bondsmen, or bail enforcement agents (commonly referred to as bounty hunters) working on behalf of a bail bondsman or a cosigner on a bail bond, looking for a client who has failed to appear in court, putting in jeopardy the forfeiture of collateral posted with the court to secure the defendant’s appearance.
Techniques used to locate a fugitive will run the entire gamut available to the professional skip tracer and involve commercial databases, telephone calls, pretexting, field interviews, canvassing with wanted posters, public records, private records, utility searches, Internet research, surveillance, “dumpster diving” and finding an informant.
Outstanding books and courses are available that specifically cover the bail enforcement industry. I highly recommend “Apprehending Bail Fugitives” as a complete reference to the bail fugitive recovery business.
Abductor cases typically involve some form of kidnapping; one example may include a non-custodial parent concealing their son or daughter from the child’s legal guardian. Private investigators are increasingly being tasked to handle cases in which an older child, most often a teenager, has run away with an adult as a result of an online seduction. While this is normally prosecuted as a form of kidnapping if the adult is caught, it is often treated as a runaway case by law enforcement and is afforded less priority. We should always treat these types of cases as if the subject could be in danger.
Initially these cases pose the greatest challenge because of the fluidity of the assignment the abductor may be moving very quickly from one place to the next until the paranoia subsides and a suitable cover can be created to conceal his or her location. It is very important to begin these cases quickly and gain as much exposure as possible in order to contain the search area. There is a common belief that most victims of abduction will remain within a one mile radius of the crime, however in cases involving runaways and parental abductions this is typically not true. It is fact that these persons often end up as far away as a different state or country.
When utilized right away, Amber Alerts, law enforcement officials and local media often pay great dividends in abduction cases. Surveillance and field interviews of family members may be important in parental abduction assignments. Never investigate this type of case without first checking in with local law enforcement to ensure that you will not be endangering their investigation. Secondly, it is always a great idea to share newly developed information with that agency, as it may be important to an active investigation on their books.
Computer forensics, Internet research and phone records may be crucial in locating the child who has run off to meet an online friend or love interest.
If the abduction has occurred some time in the past and foul play resulting in the death of the missing person is not suspected, then usual skip tracing techniques involving commercial databases, pretexting and telephone calls may work.
In my experience, people who are “running” from their obligations most often end up that way because they were living from paycheck to paycheck or recently lost their job and have not been able to recover. They get behind on their bills and have no idea how to catch up, so they begin to avoid their creditors until they either find a way to begin paying their debts or file for bankruptcy. “Serial” dead-beat parents will often just continue to run until they are required to pay the consequences, either with jail time or through such inconveniences as their inability to renew a driver’s license or obtain a professional license, having surprise wage and tax refund garnishments and by having property seized.
Runners tend to move around a lot, change jobs often or perform odd jobs for cash; 99% of them do not have a listed telephone number (if they have a land-line at all) or leave forwarding addresses. They will often hide behind post office boxes and set up utilities under other people’s names (like children and pets). Runners will not usually attempt a complete change in their identity or habits and may not be familiar with all of the tricks of the skip tracer’s trade; therefore, they frequently leave clues that will lead to their whereabouts.
The Professional Skip
The professional makes it his or her business to live and profit from extensions of credit with no intention on repaying creditors. The professional skip will often be involved in fraud and identity theft too. They commit their fraud through deception; they will outright lie or tell half-truths about their identity while applying for credit or setting up their scheme. They use a carefully crafted web of deceit in order to make it through the routine credit vetting process and lackluster due diligence investigations.
Unlike runners, the professional skip is likely to clean up any loose ends that may lead to his whereabouts. They oftentimes do not maintain contact with family members or known associates and may even go to such extremes as changing their appearance. Most professionals are aware of the techniques skip tracers use and are often not found until they have slipped up, get caught by law enforcement or become careless. Complex financial investigations and banking resources not available to most private investigators may be required to locate these people, though dumb luck has helped in the past- myself included
Regardless of the reason why someone chooses to remove himself from society, you can bet that it will be a challenge to find them if they are maintaining a low profile. You will often experience this with survivalists, members of secretive church sects, cults, communes and particularly with the paranoid conspiracy theorists. I would classify a small percentage of the homeless population as reclusive too. In my experience, the reclusive individual is typically a little strange and has always been the most fun for me to work.
I was once asked by a client to find a gentleman who called himself “River Bill.” “River Bill” was a self proclaimed, free spirit living on boats often moving along the Northern Gulf Coast between Tampa, FL and South Padre Island, TX. My client indicated to me how difficult “River Bill” was going to be to find, simply because he was “living off the grid,” a colloquialism meaning that he did not maintain the normal trappings of a person entrenched in our society of norms.
“River Bill” lived on unregistered boats that he “commandeered” or salvaged. He traveled by water so he did not need utilities, a phone, and he had no credit or banking relationships. He worked small under-the-table jobs for cash, ate what he caught in a trap or on a fishing line, etc, etc.
Without his real name my investigation was a lost cause. I eventually succeeded in obtaining “River Bill’s” real name though. As a result of his ego and a penchant for telling tall tales, “River Bill” landed himself right on the front page of a very small coastal Alabama newspaper’s Local section! A reporter writing a featured piece on Bill’s wild tales of travel arriving in the Gulf of Mexico in a canoe from Davenport, Iowa, and his adventure in riding out hurricane Katrina on his little sailboat in Bayou La Batre, AL and sailing across the Gulf of Mexico with a pine tree trunk for a mast and a blue tarp for a sail. During his recount he gave the reporter his real name, which was unbeknownst to everyone else he had ever come in contact with.
This little bit of information eventually allowed me to track him in the Josephine, AL area. He had been issued a citation by a marine patrol officer, for failing to maintain proper equipment while operating watercraft. After making a few calls to local bars and marinas I had him pegged down as a “regular” at Pirate’s Cove Restaurant and Marina!
The moral of this story is that imagination, luck and dogged determination is often just as important as traditional skip tracing techniques! You will find that this is a reoccurring theme throughout this manual.
In this instance I had set up an account with a search engine that crawls and indexes online newspaper articles, not often found by traditional search engines like Google, simply as a stab in the dark- hoping to find some shred of news about this waterborne-transient, even if that information was in an obituary. Typical skip tracing techniques are often useless in these cases but you’ll have to use them in the event you find one small overlooked detail which may blow your case open.
The assisted missing person involves those who have sought help from someone or some organization to facilitate hiding or obscuring their identity. This may include biological parents, battered-women shelters, those who have joined a cult or entered a witness protection program. I also classify teenage runaways who may be getting help from friends as assisted. Increasingly, attorneys, private investigators and others are setting up anonymity services under the guise of asset protection or identity theft protection as well.
Typical skip tracing techniques are often useless in these cases but you’ll have to use them in the event you are able find one small overlooked detail which may blow your case wide open. I had a skip hiding behind an attorney last year who I knew was in the Austin, TX area. In another last ditch effort I planned to call every mail drop (private mail box, or PMB, providers like the UPS store and Mail Boxes Etc.) in town with the same pretext, “Hi this is John Doe, can you tell me if I have any mail in my box? It’s like a 30 minute drive for me to get there today.” I believe I heard “I’m sorry I don’t recall you having a box here.” or some such, at least 30 times before I heard, “Yes, Mister Doe you do have a few pieces of mail here.” I then sent the skip a standard kitchen broom to the mail drop address, minus the PMB number since I did not have it, and set up surveillance. John Doe showed up a few days later (he was the one carrying the broom out of the mail drop) and followed him to his luxury apartment. Mission accomplished again through imagination, perseverance and luck.
If someone has left abandoned property behind, you may be able to ascertain where they were going or with whom they were working to disappear; years ago I found a lady in New Mexico who left her husband and joined a cult when I recovered deleted emails on the family computer that contained some literature published by the religious sect. Additionally, some of these types of people will maintain relationships with friends or family and a well planned and supported pretext may work; a visit to known associates during the holidays may also be similarly appropriate.
This article is a small excerpt from The Art of Skip Tracing and Missing Persons Investigations, an online skip tracing course for private investigators, bail enforcement agents, skip tracers, collateral repossession agents and other professionals who are looking for people everyday.