In the Digital Age, it isn't usually very hard for debt collectors to track down the whereabouts of borrowers who have fallen behind on their debts. From DMV and utility company records to social media profiles and credit bureau feedback, debt collectors can almost always access information that helps them to contact borrowers whose debt payments are delinquent.
Written by Attorney Eric Hansen.
Updated November 30, 2021
Sometimes, even the most financially responsible people fall behind on credit card, car loan, or student loan payments. It happens to the best of us. If you have a past-due debt, the original creditor may have passed your account on to its debt collection department or a debt collection agency. The debt collector’s goal is to collect as much of the debt as possible and it has many resources to track you down. Living in the digital age makes personal information and public records more available than ever. The bottom line is that it’s difficult to hide from a debt collector. This article covers 14 resources debt collectors and collection agencies use to track people down for payment.
They Can Check Your Original Credit Application
When you get a new loan or credit card, you’ll have to fill out a credit application with the lender. This will ask for information like your name, phone number, recent addresses, and more. That goes for any type of loan including a personal loan, consolidation loan, or student loan. If you default on that loan or credit card, the original lender may choose to sell your debt to a third-party debt collection agency or debt buyer. The new debt collector will receive your application from the original creditor, and this is the first place they’ll look for your information.
They’ll use this application to find your former address. They may also be able to get contact information for your employer, bank, and relatives to see if they know how to contact you.
They Can Contact Your Employers, Friends, Relatives, & Neighbors
Debt collectors are allowed to contact your employers, friends, relatives, and neighbors. But Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) limits how they can make the contacts. For instance, under this federal law, a collection agency can call someone you know to ask for or confirm your contact information, but they can’t say they’re trying to collect a debt from you or give any details out about your debt.
In practice, many debt collection agencies run afoul of the FDCPA. If a debt collector has violated your rights under the FDCPA, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), your state attorney general's office. You can also contact a consumer protection attorney.
They Can Check Phone Directories
Armed with as little as your phone number, a debt collector can use a reverse directory to find your address. Many debt collection agencies have access to several different reverse directories as well as industry-specific databases. These powerful tools allow them to aggressively pursue collection activity against you.
They Can Inquire With Your State’s Department of Motor Vehicles
In most states, creditors and debt collectors can use your state’s DMV database to verify your address to collect a debt. Public records like the DMV’s database can be a gold mine for debt collection agencies. They can help point agents in the right direction of your whereabouts.
They Can Check With the U.S. Postal Service
If you’ve moved from your old address or are temporarily at a different address for an indeterminate amount of time, you probably left a forwarding address with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Debt collectors can check the USPS for this forwarding address. Additionally, major credit bureaus (like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) that have an in-house collection agency receive change of address information each month from the USPS.
You may want to consider following privacy rights advocates’ suggestions when it comes to a change of address. They recommend that you use the temporary (rather than permanent) address change when filling out the post office’s change of address card, either in-person or online. This allows you to get your mail forwarded to the new address for six months (extendable for up to 12 months), but it doesn’t show up as a permanent change of address in postal records.
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They Can Ask Your Bank
People routinely move but often they keep the same bank account. Debt collection agencies have relationships with creditors, including banks and credit unions. A collections agent can request your new address from your bank, and they might give it to them.
They Can Check With the Credit Bureaus
Many debt collection agencies are associated with or have an ongoing business relationship with credit reporting agencies. If the debt collection agency is associated with one of the three major credit bureaus, they already have access to your credit reports and your personal information including, but not limited to, your address, phone number, employer, credit history, etc.
Even if the debt collector isn’t associated with or doesn’t have a relationship with a credit bureau, the debt collection agency can purchase credit alerts. The debt collector buys the right to put your name on a credit bureau locate list. If you apply for a line of credit (like a personal loan or credit card) in the future, the debt collector will get an alert. Your name and the information you used on that new credit application will be forwarded to the debt collector. This can help them locate you to collect on the debt.
They Can Search Your Social Media Profiles
In our hyper-connected world, many people use social media. Your social media profile may list your city, state of residence, current employer, former employer, and other bits of identifiable information. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other prominent social media sites are good resources for debt collectors to use to track you down. Even just knowing your city can be a good start for a debt collector to find your address. If a debt collection agency already has a judgment against you and wants to garnish your wages, they only need to know your current employer (the garnishee) to get started on a garnishment.
They Can Ask Your Utility Company
Many collection agents will contact the local utility company (electric, gas, water, phone, internet, cable, etc.) to try to obtain your current address to collect a debt. If you’re in the same service area after moving, the debt collector might have some success. If you’ve moved outside the service area, the utility company may still have your new address from sending you your final bill or from taking collection action of their own on a utility debt.
They Can Search Voter Registration Records
The voter registrar should have your new address if you’ve moved within the same county and registered again to vote. If you’ve moved to a different county, the voter registrar will likely forward cancellation information to your old county. Either way, a debt collection agency may be able to search through voter registration records to get pertinent information on you, like your current address.
They Can Do Internet Searches
An internet search through your favorite search engine can be a powerful tool in a lot of situations. It’s the same for debt collectors. Debt collection agencies can do a simple internet search and get several hits on you. Churches, professional associations, and other groups you may be a part of have online newsletters, blogs, and articles that can provide debt collectors with information about you.
They Can Search Data Aggregators
Data aggregators gather and sell personal information to companies, including debt collection agencies. Data aggregators get their information from public records, surveys, demographic data, shopping and purchase information, and so on. They then aggregate it and bundle it to those who pay for that information. Data aggregators and data brokers make much of this available online. Also, be careful with cookies and your online habits. You generally leave some traces of your IP address, along with other information when you visit websites that track that information.
They Can Use Skip Tracers
Skip tracers often work within original creditors’ debt recovery departments. They may also work on their own or within a debt collection agency. Skip tracing combines both technology and ordinary investigative techniques. Sometimes, skip tracers will physically look for you or stake out your presumed address or place of work. Other times, they will use resources like phone books, email address finders and directories, Social Security number searches, public records, domain name lookups, business and corporate records, military and Selective Service lookups, prison inmate lookups, apartment locators, hunting and fishing licenses, etc.
They May Be Pretexters
Some dishonest debt collectors use pretexters to get information on a person to further collection activities. A pretexter or being pretextual is when a person contacts a debtor on what seems like an innocent basis, like calling a person for an alleged survey. The pretexter will use pretenses like that to elicit information from the target and then end the call, text exchange, or chat exchange rather abruptly. Then, the pretexter passes that information on to the debt collector or uses it to impersonate the debtor to get even more personal financial information on them. This sort of scam, along with identity theft, is more and more prevalent these days. Be careful when you make phone calls, text, chat, or email.
Debt collectors are resourceful and will be aggressive in pursuing a debt. They have many ways of finding your information, starting with your original credit application. They may also search several online databases, including directories and the DMV, to learn your whereabouts. Something as simple as a social media profile can point them in the right direction. If you’re past due on a debt, don’t panic. Knowing that debt collectors can track you down, it’s best to be proactive and call the original creditor or debt collector and see what options you have to repay the debt. You may be able to settle the debt for less than you owe or come up with a manageable repayment plan.