How Collection Agencies Find You

Collectors use a number of methods to find out where you live.

By , Attorney

Just because a collection agency calls or writes to you, don't assume that it knows where you live, especially if you've moved since you transacted business with the original creditor. All the bill collector knows is that it mailed a letter or left a phone message that wasn't returned.

Here are the primary resources a collection agency uses to find people.

Information on your credit application. The original creditor provides the collection agency with the information on your credit application. If you've moved, someone listed on the application (employer, bank, credit references, or nearest living relative) might know where you are.

Relatives, friends, employers, and neighbors. Collection agents often call relatives, friends, employers, or neighbors, posing as a friend or relative. However, federal law limits these types of calls. (To learn more about what collectors can and cannot do, see Illegal Debt Collection Practices.)

Phone books. Phone directories, printed or online, are good sources of names, addresses, and phone numbers. If a collection agency has your phone number, it may be able to find your address using a reverse directory. A reverse directory lists telephone numbers in numeric order, rather than by name.

Post office. The agency may check the post office for a forwarding address. Also, major credit bureaus with their own collection agencies receive change-of-address information for each month from the U.S. Postal Service.

Some privacy rights advocates suggest that to prevent collectors from using your change of address information to find your current address, you choose the "temporary" address change when you fill out a change of address request. That will forward mail for six months, and you can extend it for up to a year, but it won't show up as a permanent change of address in postal records. Alternatively, you can simply notify each person or business you want to know your new address, but not fill out a postal change of address form. Of course, you run the risk that you will forget a business or person you do want to keep in contact with, or whose bills you want to pay on time. You could wind up falling behind on a priority account because you don't get the bills.

State motor vehicle department. In most states, a legitimate creditor or its agent (the collection agency) can use the motor vehicle department's database to verify your address in order to collect a debt and pursue its legal remedies against you.

Voter registration records. Some collection agents check voter registration records in the county of your last residence. If you've reregistered in the same county, the registrar will have your new address. If you've moved out of county and reregistered, your new county would have forwarded cancellation information to your old county, and the registrar may make that information available.

Utility companies. Although this process is difficult, an agency collector may be able to find you through the electric or phone company, especially if you are still in the same service area. Even if you move farther, the company may have your new address as a place to send your final bill.

Banks. If you move but leave your old bank account open—even if you don't still do business with the bank—the bank will probably have your new address and may provide it to a collection agency.

Credit bureaus. If a collection agency is associated with a credit reporting agency , the collection agency will have access to all kinds of information, like your address, phone number, employer, and credit history. Even if it isn't part of a credit bureau, for a small fee the collector can place your name on a credit bureau locate list. If you apply for credit—even if you've moved hundreds or thousands of miles from where you previously lived—your name could be forwarded to the collection agency. (To learn more about credit reporting agencies, see What's in Your Credit Report?)

Data aggregators. Data aggregators gather and sell information on millions of people from public records, surveys, purchase data, and demographic data. Much of this information is now available online. You may want to try to opt out of these online lists. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse provides useful information about "people search" sites, along with a list of data brokers.

Internet searches. You can find anything from aircraft owners to high school classmates online. Even clubs, churches, and PTAs put their newsletters online now, so your affiliations could show up in an Internet search. Then the organization might innocently help the collection agency find you.

Skip tracers. Creditors and collectors use skip tracers to locate people. Skip tracers locate people using traditional and high-tech techniques, such as telephone books, email address finders, Social Security number searches, telephone company call records, public records, domain name lookups, military and Selective Service lookups, prison inmate lookups, professional license lookups, apartment locators, hotel/motel locators, business and corporate records, hunting and fishing licenses, and even eBay seller searches.

Pretexters. Pretexters get people's personal information illegally, using false pretenses. A pretexter might call you and say he's from a survey firm. He might ask you some questions to elicit basic personal information. When the pretexter has enough information, he calls your financial institution and pretends to be you or someone who is authorized to access your account. He gets more personal information from the bank.

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