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RecovaDebt Blog

8 Ways to Locate Missing Debtors

March 22, 2021
Skip Tracing

Sometime in 2016, a company approached me to assist them recover money from another company. The debt had been overdue for almost 5 years and was almost statute-barred (legally unrecoverable). They had retained 3 or 4 law firms in succession who had each written to the debtor to demand payment. The letters were all returned undelivered.

The facts threw up interesting issues. The creditor was based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The debtor’s business address was in Lagos, Nigeria. The debt arose from a contract to supply chippings and transportation by the creditor to the debtor’s construction site at Akamkpa, Cross Rivers State, Nigeria. The debtor had absconded from the construction site leaving hundreds of millions in unpaid bills. It had also moved from its existing address in Lagos, so the creditor could not find it to initiate recovery action against it. Inquiries at the banks indicated that its accounts were no longer funded. The creditor was stumped and reluctant to spend money to file a court action when there appeared to be no assets to realize upon. The lawyers it had retained seemed confused about what to do.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation where someone is owing you and you have no way of getting your money back because the person seems to have disappeared into thin air?

There are ways of locating a missing debtor. Most recovery agencies have several debt collection tactics they use to recover debt more efficiently and overcome common payment issues. One of those tactics is called skip tracing.

Mikaela Parrick of Brown & Joseph wrote an excellent article on the subject, What is skip tracing?, where she describes skip tracing as the “process of locating a debtor who has “skipped” or left town, hence the name “skip tracing.” Skip tracing is a process used to find a fugitive who is not present at the place of their residence for a prolonged period of time.

The “skip” is the fugitive/person on the run who is trying not to be found and tracing is the art of locating and knowing the whereabouts of that person. Typically, skip tracing is performed in a series of steps. The first step is to verify the information provided by the client and correct any misinformation. This step also helps the skip tracer familiarize themselves with the subject. Information like: Names; Addresses; Employment; Relationship status; Property ownership; Bank accounts; Social media accounts and handles.

Then, the skip tracer begins to collect as much information about the subject as possible, using public resources such as: Credit Reports, Public Records Databases, Criminal Background Checks, Courthouse Records, Utility Bills. If none of these resources return helpful information, the skip tracer will then begin to contact current or past acquaintances of the subject, like neighbours, landlords, friends, relatives, and co-workers.”

I have taken the liberty of making minor changes to the quoted text to stay within the context of this article. Any errors/omissions on my part are unintended and sincerely regretted.

The methods described above will work in countries where there are accessible, centralized public (or private) records, or where the known associates of a debtor are willing to talk. But how do you skip trace in a developing country like Nigeria where public records are opaque, inaccessible and decentralized; where even the most mundane things are treated like official secrets; where the pervading atmosphere of distrust and insecurity will propel most people to the other side of the street if they are approached by a stranger who wants information?

I have found a few methods to be extremely helpful while tracking absconding debtors and will share them here. Some will work when the debtor is an artificial person i.e. a registered business while others are more appropriate to track natural persons.

In no order of priority, these methods are:

  1. Google
    “Before social media and the internet rose to prominence, skip tracers had to do everything manually – traveling to a location, speaking with friends and family, calling references and spending lots of time scouring public records. But, thankfully, with the sheer amount of data available today through the internet, skip tracers are often able to find who they are searching for in a relatively short amount of time.” – Mikaela Parrick

    I have found that 8 out of 10 times a Google search will reveal tons of information about a person, their known associates, interests, etc that build a profile which can be used to find his/her current location, particularly if the person remains active on social media while on the skip.

    Reverse image searches can also be used to locate missing people. If you have their recent pictures shot in public places, doing a reverse image search will bring up images of similar places. You may be able to identity where the picture was taken, narrowing down your search parameters significantly. There are a few online resources you can use for your reverse image search, most prominent of which is Google Image Search. It’s simple and easy to use.
  2. Social media e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
    Remember the debtor I talked about in my article on the recovering consumer debts who skipped after racking up 4 years rent and tying up the landlord in court for that period before skipping? I eventually located him on Facebook. Did I mention that he was a Preacher and liked posting to Facebook frequently? Anyway, we saw the signage of his church on Facebook, identified the location and showed up during Sunday Service. When first-time visitors were being welcomed, we came out to the pulpit to be received. The look on his face was priceless! Long story short: we left the service with a miraculous testimony of half the debt paid instantly and a post-dated cheque for the balance, payable at the end of the month. The cheque cleared without hitches.

    Twitter can also help you find missing people. I have never used it for this purpose, personally, but I have seen numerous tweets where people have asked for help to find someone and thousands of people responded, some of which led to the missing person being found.
  3. Physical address visitation
    If you already have the skip’s previous address, you may need to visit. You may get lucky and meet someone who knows his/her present address and is willing to talk. Vendors and tradesmen within the area are a good source of information. They can give you the contact details of the skip’s relatives, associates, friends, etc, from whom you may be able to glean useful information. You may also be able to obtain information at his/her previous place of employment, from co-workers, etc.
  4. Utilize contacts within the banking sector
    Any good skip tracer must maintain friendships within the banking services industry. While industry ethics will not permit bankers to give you details of customers’ financial transactions without a court order, your friends who work in banks can at least tell you if a skip has an account with their bank and if it is active or not. A VERY GOOD friend may also be able to tell you in confidence where they did their last ATM or POS transaction 🙂. This gives a location within a particular city that can be the genesis of a more localised search.
  5. Track phone usage
    This method will require law enforcement cooperation and can only be used if the circumstances of the debt disclose the commission of a crime. For example, a debtor may have issued a cheque for the debt which was dishonoured upon presentation at the bank due to insufficient funds in the account. The creditor must present the cheque within 3 months of the date of issuance for it to constitute a criminal offence under the Dishonoured Cheques (Miscellaneous Offences) Act CAP D11, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. A complaint may then be lodged with the police or other law enforcement agencies. During investigation, and if the putative defendant cannot be found, the law enforcement agencies are at liberty to deploy technology to track the debtor through his/her mobile phone SIM and effect an arrest. Prosecution will follow, during which the debtor would most likely pay the debt to get the charge dropped.

    Note, however, that this step carries some risk of reprisal if no clear criminal offence is disclosed in the circumstances of the debt and you set the law enforcement machinery in motion against the debtor without good grounds. The Supreme Court of Nigeria has decided in several cases, more recently in EFCC v. Diamond Bank Plc (2018) NWLR (pt. 1620) page 61 at 79, paras E – F, that the powers vested in the crime fighting agencies do not extend to the investigation or resolution of disputes arising or resulting from simple contracts or civil transactions. The courts have also held that those who set the criminal justice machinery in motion in respect of civil transactions are liable for any damages suffered by the victims of such action.
  6. Monitor close family members
    If you can identify the debtor’s family members, you can monitor their social media activity. Most social media app users leave their profile settings in default mode, so their posts can be viewed by almost anyone. One or more of them may inadvertently mention an event or location where your debtor can be found.
  7. Search government records
    If the debtor is a company, you can obtain information that can be used to track its current location from government records. The Federal Inland Revenue Service can give access to the company’s tax filings, from where you can trace the person who filed it.

    A search at the Corporate Affairs Commission, Abuja will yield information about the company’s registered address, the address of its secretary, the addresses, phone numbers and emails of its shareholders and directors. If the company is still doing business, you can access its annual returns. These can all be used to contact everyone involved with the company, from where a conversation can ensue about payment of the debt.

    I started with a story about a company that was owed for close to 5 years and the debtor had disappeared into Lagos. When I took on the case, the first thing I did was to run a company search at the Corporate Affairs Commission, Abuja. I discovered that the majority shareholders were an Egypt-based company and a Sharjah, UAE-based Company, while the company secretary was a law firm based in Lagos. I wrote demand letters to the entities in Egypt and UAE and to the company secretary, not disclosing that I had no clue about the location of the Nigerian entity in Lagos. I sent the letters by DHL, monitored the delivery via DHL tracking and crossed my fingers and toes.

    The UAE address turned out to be a dud. It was a post-office dropbox and no-one could take delivery of the letter. The company secretary received the letter and, as all good lawyers ought to do, kept mum till they received instructions from their client. However, I struck gold with the Egyptian entity.

    The letter was delivered to and signed for by someone at the disclosed address in Egypt. 2 days or so later, I received a letter from a Lagos law firm, inviting me for a meeting at the debtor’s office in Lagos. My client tagged along for the meeting and voila! Debtor located

    We discussed at length. They conceded part of the debt that my client had airtight records on but quibbled about the rest. I persuaded the client to let go of the unsubstantiated part so we could close out the discussion and they agreed. I gave the company a deadline to pay, and that if they did not, the concession we had given would lapse. They said they would get back to us. When the deadline expired, I filed an action to wind up the company, served them and served a copy on the Egyptian entity. They called us for another meeting and paid up the entire debt. We did not have to make any concessions on the total debt owed. They paid everything.

    Which brings me to the last thing. When all options have been exhausted and you have confirmed that the debtor is still alive and/or doing business:
  8. File a court action and garnishee the debtor’s bank accounts
    If you have the debtor’s last known address, most of the states’ courts will allow you to file a suit to recover the debt and serve on the debtor by pasting at his/her last known address or by publication in a newspaper. Once service is verified by the court, you can proceed with an undefended suit and if you get judgment, you can execute it by garnisheeing the debtor’s bank accounts. You don’t need to know the debtor’s bank account details to set the process in motion; all you need, in most cases, is the debtor’s full names i.e. first name, middle name, surname and a valid court judgment for the debt.

    I will examine the dynamics of the garnishee process in a future article.

    But if you succeed in trapping the debtor’s funds in the bank, you can be 100% sure that s/he will show up in court to try to stop you from taking the money and you would have succeeded in resurrecting that missing debtor.

Now you know how. Go grab that debtor. Or, if you lack the time or patience to do it yourself, hit any of the contact media below and we’ll be on the case in a flash.

Emeka D. A. Ojoko, ACIArb, ABR, FIDR

Emeka is the Non-Executive Chairman of RecovaDebt Limited. He can be reached via [email protected]


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  1. Interesting read. My advice to professionals and businesses in Nigeria is to build their own database related to their industry since the government and various sectors of the society have failed continuously to create such an essential thing as a database.

    Nuaka Leh-Togi - April 17th, 2021 3:39 pm
  2. Very informative blog! Thanks for sharing such useful information. I think taking professional help can be a wise idea when it comes to locating a missing debtor who is hiding for a long time. Private investigators can help you locate a person of your interest using a skip tracing service. They have access to databases & resources that can’t be accessed by any individual. With the help of them, you can collect your debt fast without any worries.

    George - May 26th, 2021 6:34 am
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