Since my retirement from active skip-tracing eight years ago, I now have the opportunity to sit back and observe the industry closely. Since I’ve taken on a teaching and training role, reaching a new generation of skip-tracers with MasterFiles, I hear much talk and concern on the topic of best practices and compliance.

To the late-comers I say, “Welcome to the party!”

To those of you who have spent an entire career making sure that your company and your team are well-trained and educated in the local, state and federal regulations, this subject is nothing new.  The organizations that have always advocated methods to maintain compliance typically seem to rise above the rest, survive and prosper even in the tough economic times of today.

Today I would like to shed more light on the sometimes neglected skip-tracer. In any operation, they can be one of your greatest assets: making you a profit and/or reducing your losses.

Or they can be detrimental to your bottom line.

Characteristics of Skip-Tracing

A true skip-tracer in 2014 has to be an expert on many things — human nature, interviewing skills, understanding the complex world of data and much more. Yet I believe that the most valuable asset they can bring to their profession is a working understanding of all the regulations that a skip-tracer must function within.

We all know that skip-tracers are often pushed into situations which have them sacrificing fundamental good practices in the quest for rapid results.  When they’re being told to, “find that Skip by any means necessary;  I don’t care what it costs,” a simple slip-up on third-party disclosure, an unconscious violation of GLB, FDCPA, FCRA, or a careless disregard for the Pre-Text Act is not unheard of. 

Yet it can come with tens of thousands in fines and possible jail time. In September of last year the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had an amendment added in September of 2013, and we can’t forget about the Truth in Caller ID Act, as well.

We now live in a regulation nation — the CFPB and all the regulations and more are here to stay. I may be in the minority here, but in some ways I like the regulations and compliance. It serves as a way to elevate the industry and dispel perceptions on who and what we are. Skip-tracers have always been a highly educated creative group of men and women.

Now we have the ability to show what it takes to be a true professional in the industry — one who knows the law and is successful working within it.

Today, a skip-tracer must juggle legal compliance with the ability to locate a human being who does not want to be found.  Skip-tracers often find themselves navigating mine-fields of regulations, risking lawsuits from debtors, fines from governmental regulators and the possibility of a criminal record.

Given the range of risks, and the quagmire of legalities, it is usually impossible to cover the training needed at a once-a-year conference event; and even if attempted, most of the time it is the owner or manager who attends and not the person performing the task.

Importance of Ongoing Training

I tip my hat to Ron Brown, who has started the 20 Group process within the collateral recovery industry. His Eagle Group provides monthly meetings, conference calls, sharing of information and much more. They cover everything needed to be successful in today’s environment.

The American Recovery Association, in partnership with the Recovery Industry Services Company (RISC), has started online webinars to help their members get into, and stay in compliance with all the regulations.

Leaders from both of these esteemed organizations understand the value of education and training for not just an owner or manager, but also for everyone employed within the company.

It is only with this type of forward thinking that we, as an industry, will prosper and stand head and shoulders above all others as we meet the challenges, and the rewards, to come in the months and years ahead.

For 27 some-odd years I have been a proud skip-tracer, and nothing but a skip-tracer. It is all I have done or ever wanted to do, and it has been the most rewarding experience of my life.  The honor comes through knowing the men and women of the industry that have crossed my path over the years, and who have graciously mentored me from the age of 24 or 25 years old to today.

In many cases they have been the legends of the art of skip-tracing, and the auto finance, law enforcement and bail enforcement industries.

We all can agree that the days of the Wild West are far behind us and will not return. My wish is for all the associations to band together, if for nothing else, then for education and compliance.

Today’s Pitfalls

We all deal with sensitive data in our day-to-day activities — from customer applications, to internal files, to data retrieved from the net. We are all charged to be good stewards of this data, and if we aren’t, we can lose that privilege.

Being without access to data in today’s world would make our jobs nearly impossible.

The following cases are perfect examples of some horror stories I have heard during my travels of how failing to protect the data can be a costly mistake. In one case a debtor’s file was a left in a repossessed vehicle.

When the lending institution gave the car back to the debtor for payments, the car owner found the file containing her own sensitive data carelessly abandoned inside the vehicle.  The car owner filed suit for invasion of privacy, and the business owner ended up having to pay off the debtor’s auto to settle.

In another case a bondsman terminated an employee who lacked morals but possessed a good memory.  She remembered to take her old login and password with her to her new job at the competitor’s business.  Because the previous employer had failed to terminate the ex-employee’s access, she racked up enough usage to stick her former boss for a six thousand dollar bill.

Each of these expensive mistakes could have been prevented by having some simple office security policies in place, which would not only enhance the daily functions of a business, but also allow the business owner a better night’s sleep.

An Opportunity to Gather

At the North American Repossessors Summit in Dallas beginning on March 12, I will be speaking on this subject and effective communications for the skip-tracer. I look forward to meeting you there.

Below are just some examples of the policies and procedures that are warranted by the sensitive (and costly) nature of protected data:

• Formal and documented security policies, standards, plans and procedures

• Written policy or standard regarding data privacy (signed by all staff members)

• Internet access and use policy

• Encryption policy and standards

• Security incident management policy

• Policies for managing external communication devices and removable media

• Restrict access to information and technology to your staffs job function

• Establish a process for granting and documenting system access, including but not limited to access for third parties and remote access. 

• Disable user names and passwords associated with employees that are terminated or transferred. 

• Prevent removing secure information or related assets (storage media, hardware) from the premises.

• Equip Security Cameras to cover inside and outside doors and areas associated with access to secured data  

• Electronically alarm all doors and/or windows

Alex Price is a nationally recognized expert on the art of skip-tracing. Currently he is the executive vice president for MasterFiles and author of Skip Tracers National Certification Program, The Florida Records Guide, The Military Installations Guide and blogger with more than 25 years of experience in skip-tracing, collections and public speaking. He can be reached at alex.price@masterfiles.com (972) 735-2353.