Investigative Recruiting: Using a Skip-Tracing Database

Apr 25, 2002

Whenever you are working on a candidate search, a number of potential candidates inevitably come up “missing in action.” The switchboard informs you the executive is no longer with the company, for example. And often, that is where the search for those executives will end. Who has time to find them? Moreover, even if you wanted to track them down, how could you possibly find them if they have moved out of state? And besides, how could you possibly contact them if their phone number is unlisted? The easiest way to draw a bead on the executive’s new location, of course, is to find out who their executive assistant was and to ask that person for their former boss’s new contact information. If the secretary is unwilling to provide you with that information, simply have them get a message to that person to contact you. Another pain-free method is to enter that executive’s name and former company into the Google search engine (my favorite) or into other various news databases to try to pull up the announcement of where that executive landed. Sometimes adding the word “joins” to the search string of phrases typically used in news releases announcing that an executive joined the executive team will do the trick. But if you strike out there, what’s a recruiter to do? Well, don your fedora, pull on your gumshoes, and do what any self-respecting detective would do: search a skip-tracing database or visit a skip-tracing portal. Skip tracers are services that track down people who’ve moved (skipped town) in order to avoid prosecution or to avoid paying their bills. These services provide stunningly identifying information to law firms, banks, and creditors, as well as insurance and government agencies. But they also provide information to journalists who need to find sources to report the news. I became familiar with skip-tracing databases while working as an investigative reporter and television journalist. After founding my own investigative recruitment research business, I decided to use the databases to track the elusive executive. Because these databases contain seriously identifying information that often includes social security numbers, a series of current and former addresses, and unlisted phone numbers, the average Joe isn’t allowed to subscribe. A business must demonstrate that it is indeed a legitimate business and that it will use the information for the greater good. (There has been a movement to make such information harder to acquire out of the fear that stalkers will use this information to track down their prey ó a not entirely unrealistic concern.) I currently use Merlin Flat Rate (you can call (888) 259-6173 for a free demo). It’s affordable and easy to use. It allows you to search using different combinations of information, such as name and state, name and city, address and city, and address and zip code. You can also search by name and birth date or social security number. The process is simple and takes just a few minutes. Here’s how it works:

  1. Obtain the executive’s middle initial. Whenever the executive’s name is somewhat common, I start my detective work by quickly locating a middle initial of the executive I am seeking. Why? Often a skip-trace search will pull up hundreds of John Smiths in a state, but if you know you’re looking for John Q. Smith, you’ve just winnowed that list down to a handful of possibilities. Sometimes you can obtain a candidate’s middle initial by searching the Internet for corporate biographies or press releases. Sometimes you can find it in speaker biographies at conferences. SEC filings are also a good resource to check. Better yet, check out transcripts of testimony in court or before congress ó often the most fertile sources of a middle initial, as it is standard protocol to cite a person’s full legal name in legal situation (the recent Microsoft antitrust lawsuit has been quite fruitful for my technology recruitment practice in that regard).
  2. Determine the last known state the person lived in. Usually it’s the same state as the person’s last known employer.
  3. Log on to your skip-tracing database and try running name-state searches. Make sure you try various permutations of the person’s first name (Joe, Joseph, Joey, etc.). Start with the version that the person goes by most often. Try searching with and without the middle initial (on Merlin, you don’t enter a period after the initial).
  4. When you pull up several people with the same name and state, use Mapquest to pinpoint the right executive. Common sense tells you if that person used to work for Company X in Texas, he had to live in the same city or at least in a suburban town within commuting distance of the corporate office. So enter the former company office address in the Mapquest driving directions interface and then, one by one, enter the addresses of the five “John Q. Smith” listings you pulled up in Texas. Mapquest will compute how long the commute is for each of the five. If for some reason there are a couple of people within commuting distance, check the date of birth and do the math. If one of the John Qs is 92, chances are he’s retired and this isn’t your man. Or if the candidate you seek is a senior-level executive, but the database has a John Q listed who is just 25, again, eliminate him.
  5. Click through to find the current address. When you’ve narrowed the list down to the right executive, click on the old address and it will pull up every former address belonging to that person, including the current address. Bingo. You’ve just discovered where the executive is now living. If you’re still winnowing, the address list is a chronology of where the person has lived. So if you know your executive worked in New York before moving to Texas to join his former employer (and before becoming MIA), then you know your John Q has to show a New York address.
  6. Look up the right area code. Often Merlin lists a current phone number lacking the area code. Merlin provides an area code lookup in its interface. I prefer to use for this.
  7. Call the executive. If the number is out of order, don’t despair. Call directory assistance and ask for a listing for the executive now that you’ve located his or her new address. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the listing that way.
  8. If you can’t come up with the right phone number, send a letter to that address (or a business gift if he or she is a star candidate).
  9. If time is of the essence, Merlin can pull up the listings of neighbors. Simply contact them and ask if they have the executive’s home number or if they’re willing to carry a message to the executive. Tell them it is for a time-sensitive job opportunity.
  10. Contact their relatives. Merlin also pulls up the names of people who’ve lived in the same household ó spouses and grown children, for example. If you’re still hitting the wall, try contacting them to find the executive.

If you give up trying to recruit a valuable executive when they turn up MIA, you’re missing a chance to close the search. I once tracked down a key AT&T executive who had just left the company and was contemplating various opportunities that were on his plate. His home number was unlisted. But by using a skip-trace database, we were able to pull his home number and recruit him as a marquis-name chief marketing officer for a best-of-breed startup here in New York. Investigative recruitment certainly has its rewards.