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 did business with the original creditor. All the bill collector knows is that it mailed a letter or left a voicemail that wasn't returned.
Here are the primary resources a collection agency uses to find people.
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.
Collection agents often call relatives, friends, employers, or neighbors, posing as a friend or relative. However, federal law limits these types of calls.
Phone directories, printed or online, are good sources of names, addresses, and phone numbers. If a collection agency has your phone number, it might be able to find your address using a reverse directory. A reverse directory lists telephone numbers in numeric order, rather than by name.
The agency might 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 of forgetting a business or person you 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.
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.
Some collection agents check voter registration records in the county of your last residence. The registrar will have your new address if you've reregistered in the same county. If you've moved out of the county and reregistered, your new county would have forwarded cancellation information to your old county, and the registrar could make that information available.
Although this process is difficult, an agency collector might 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 might have your new address as a place to send your final bill.
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 could provide it to a collection agency.
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.
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 might 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.
You can find anything from aircraft owners to high school classmates online. Even clubs, churches, and PTAs put their newsletters online, so your affiliations could show up in an internet search. Then, the organization might innocently help the collection agency find you.
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, phone 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 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.
If you need help dealing with an aggressive debt collector, figuring out what option is best for handling your debts, negotiating a settlement, or responding to a lawsuit for nonpayment of a debt, consider consulting with a lawyer.
And if you have a lot of debts, you might want to consider filing for bankruptcy.