Process Serving and Skip Tracing Entrepreneurs The Buzz


If you're interested in law, good at solving puzzles and talented at connecting dots, you might make a good process server or skip tracer.

Process servers deliver legal documents to people and companies. These documents require the person to show up in court to testify. People receiving these legal documents are often not happy to see you. Sometimes, they're hard to track down. Many process servers are also skip tracers for this reason.

A skip tracer is a professional at finding people. They know how to do things like search court records and online databases to find people. Often, a skip tracer looks for someone who owes money to a company. Or they might look for people who owe child support. Skip tracers can also use their skills to find someone's long-lost family member or witnesses to accidents.

"It's useful to be able to do skip tracing if you're going to do process serving," says Joan Earnshaw. She is a private investigator in New Mexico. "You sometimes have to serve papers on somebody who has moved and you have to find them."

Most skip tracers and process servers are also private investigators. Some choose to focus on just skip tracing or process serving. Skip tracers often work for clients trying to collect debt. Process servers usually work on a case-by-case basis for law firms.

Tony Pawl is the manager of a process serving company. He also does some skip tracing. Pawl started working as a private investigator in 1976. He has dropped the detective work in recent years, however, to focus on process serving.

"I personally gave it up because I'd had enough gumshoeing," Pawl says, laughing. "I'd much rather stay out of the rain."

Pawl was a police officer before getting into private investigating. It is common for skip tracers and process servers to have experience in law enforcement. Some process servers are pre-law students working for law firms.

The National Association of Investigative Specialists (NAIS) has more than 3,000 members. Zeke Hadi, operations manager, estimates that 30 percent of their members do skip tracing, while 25 percent do process serving.

Hadi says he knows many investigators who earn $100,000 to $150,000 per year. "If you're good at it, you might average $40,000 or $50,000 a year just doing skip tracing," he says.

Pawl agrees that investigators can earn $100,000 or more, but not by only doing process serving. Typically, process servers earn between $10 and $25 an hour, he says, while skip tracing can bring in $40,000 a year.

Dean Beers estimates the average salary for process servers is between $35,000 and $50,000. Beers is a private investigator in Colorado who focuses on process serving. He has written numerous articles about investigative techniques.

Beers has been self-employed in the field since 1987. "It got into it because I didn't want to work for other people anymore," he says. "I was young and I didn't have anything I had to be committed to, so I decided to train myself to do it."

It's typical for process servers and skip tracers to work alone, out of a home office. Some work for small companies with two or three other people, but there are very few large companies.

Skip tracers and process servers need very little equipment. To start out, all you need are a telephone, a computer and some business cards.

Persistence, good communication skills and resourcefulness are important qualities. Pawl says you should be "someone who can communicate, and who's not afraid to walk up to strangers and hand them court documents and be resilient and assertive. It's not a profession for a timid person. And occasionally you have to use initiative in tracking people down."

Process servers aren't just couriers. They need to know the law, which varies according to the document and the state. Some legal documents need to be delivered within 24 hours, others within a couple of weeks. Some documents can be delivered to a spouse, others only to the person being served. And so on.

Depending on where you live, some form of licensing might be required. Most states have some type of requirements for process servers and skip tracers. To access some databases, many states require you to be a licensed private investigator.

Getting licensed usually involves paying a small fee, taking a test and having a background check. A background check is done because databases contain information that could be misused. Also common is the requirement to be sponsored by a private investigator for six months to a year. This means you learn on the job, working as an assistant.

For process servers, Beers estimates that two-thirds of U.S. states require licensing, registration, training or some combination thereof. In some states, such as California, a process server needs to be registered and certified by the court.

In Colorado, on the other hand, you just have to be 18 with a clean criminal record. You also have to be a disinterested party, meaning you're not involved in the court case.

Getting started is a matter of slowly building a reputation. Much work comes from word of mouth. This means the first few years can be slow.

"It's a matter of building a client base," says Pawl. "It's like opening a store -- it takes a while to build up a client base and keep them happy."

Beers says a good reputation is essential for process servers. "You're involved in the whole process, pretty much from start to finish," he says.

"If you don't get witnesses served, your attorney doesn't have witnesses to testify. If you don't get proper service of a lawsuit, then you don't have a lawsuit. So it's based on reputation more than anything."

Few skip tracers and process servers are female. In fact, Earnshaw estimates 90 to 95 percent are male. She believes this will change as more women enter law enforcement and become aware of process serving and skip tracing.

"There's no reason why women can't do it," she says. "In fact, with things like skip tracing, women are much better at it. Women talk more easily to people. They're accustomed to talking and listening and picking up clues."

Earnshaw says the reward of being a process server is ensuring justice is done. People don't show up for court hearings if they don't have the papers served on them. And skip tracing can be particularly rewarding.

"It's knowing that you were able to find somebody that somebody else could not find," she says. "It's like finding the pot at the end of the rainbow."

Links

American Recovery Association
Check out their Skip Tracing Tool Box

National Association of Investigative Specialists
Visit this site for a list of thousands of investigators, including skip tracers and process servers

Rapid Taggers Process Serving
This site shows you the rates charged by a process serving and skip tracing company

Skip Trace Links
Lots of links to help you find anyone, anywhere