Skip Tracing: What It Is and How to Do It Ethically
Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director King County Law Library with Stephen Seely, Outreach Services Attorney King County Law Library
One of the most popular CLEs that we offer at the King County Law Library is on the topic of skip tracing. In this column, we’ll discuss the burning questions regarding all things skip tracing with Stephen Seely, our Outreach Services Attorney.
BE: Stephen, I’ve always found skip tracing to be a very arcane term but for some reason it seems to be commonly used by attorneys or at least in CLE titles. What does skip tracing actually mean, and where does the term come from?
SS: Skip tracing is an old term of art from the private investigation industry, but understanding it is very straightforward. Historically, skip tracing was the process of tracking down someone who had neglected to pay a debt and had ran off. Most people are familiar with the related phrase “to skip town.” The term can be understood by breaking it down into two parts. First, there’s the “skip” which references the scofflaw you’re looking for. Second, there’s the tracking down of the skip, referred to as the “trace.” In modern use, skip tracing has much broader meaning than just finding people who owe debts. The term now means finding people, property, and assets.
BE: Good to know, so skip tracing is essentially the process of finding people and assets. What are the most common scenarios where attorneys would need to do people or asset finding?
SS: Well, there are many reasons why an attorney might need to do some skip tracing, but I would divide them into three general categories. The first category would be finding people. As with the traditional meaning of skip tracing, tracking down someone who owes a debt or is subject to a court judgment or garnishment is still very common. Tracking people who are involved in litigation is also very common. This could include finding parties in order to serve process, finding potential witness, or finding reluctant witnesses. The second category would be tracking down personal assets or information about real property for due diligence purposes. The third category would be tracking down valuations of real property and assessing personal assets.
BE: Much of my knowledge of private detective work comes from watching TV in the 1970s which included a steady diet of Colombo reruns. In my mind, skip tracing is rooting around in dumpsters in a ratty tan trench coat, tracking down marks at the horse track, and absentmindedly saying “oh and one last thing…” before neatly tying the case up. Presumably, things are much different now. What are your top resources for people finding?
SS: I’m happy to report that dumpster diving and trips to the track are no longer required. Skip tracing can largely be done online now, which makes it well suited to the realities of working during a pandemic. In my skip tracing CLE I go through dozens of websites for tracking down particular types of information. We don’t have the time or space to go over all of those now, but I do have recommendations for three sites that provide good jumping-off points. One of the trickiest things at the outset of this type of research is confirming that you have found the correct person. It can be very frustrating to spend a significant amount of time tracing a lead only to subsequently discover he wasn’t the correct “skip” after all. I’ve found that https://www.fastpeoplesearch.com and https://www.spokeo.com are both excellent places to start a free search. They cast a fairly broad net but offer enough information to help you decide if the profile you’re looking at is actually the person you’re looking for. Because social media has taken on an outsized role in the way that people connect with each other, if you have a person’s social media handle, using https://www.social-searcher.com can also be an excellent starting point for combing through social media platforms.
BE: We’ve all heard the horror stories of the ethical pitfalls of social media and litigation. What ethical considerations should attorneys be aware of when doing skip tracing research?
SS: Yes, this brings up a good point. I’m currently developing a CLE on the ethical issues that arise for attorneys when doing internet and social media research. This is a developing area of the law but all of the same basic ethical principles and proscriptions that would apply to real world interactions and tangible research also apply in the world of electronic research. As a general rule: if you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it online. Washington does not yet have any on-point ethics opinions about using the Internet to skip trace. However, the American Bar Association does have a formal ethics opinion regarding the more specific use of social media as a tool to investigate jurors. The gist of the opinion is that a lawyer may passively review a juror’s public presence on the Internet but may not communicate with a juror. The opinion also explains that requesting access to a private area on a juror’s social media (i.e., “friending” or “following”) is considered communication.
When in doubt, it’s advisable to err on the side of caution and limit yourself to publicly available information that you can obtain passively, without eliciting it from the skip themselves. And, as with any situation where you find yourself in an ethical grey area, it’s best to contact the WSBA’s ethics hotline for guidance regarding your situation at (206) 727-8284.
BE: This is great information Stephen, thanks for sharing. If people have questions, where can they go to find more information?
SS: My pleasure. For more information I recommend attending the King County Law Library’s Skip Tracing CLE. You can find the next scheduled class on the Law Library’s website by going to our website, www.kcll.org, and clicking on the “CLEs/Classes” option in the menu at the top of the page. As I noted earlier, I’m developing a CLE on the ethics of internet and social media research for attorneys. You can subscribe to KCLL’s newsletter to be alerted when that class becomes available.
BE: Thanks again, Stephen. For questions about skip tracing or any other research needs, remember that you can always contact the King County Law Library at firstname.lastname@example.org.