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The Distinction Between a Private Investigator and Skip Tracer

In order to understand the complexities and delineations between private investigators and skip tracers, it is imperative to undertake a deep dive into each profession, elucidating the intricate details that guide their distinct frameworks. Not only do private investigators and skip tracers work under different mandates and expertise levels, but they also pursue divergent paths because one is licensed and the other is not.

man standing with back to camera Private Investigator Vs. Skip Tracer
At the surface it may seem that a PI and skip tracer are the same. But they are not.

What You Will Learn


When looking for a professional to help you disappear, or gain greater anonymity, you need someone that understands how intelligence is gathered, where data comes from, how it is used so they can reverse engineer how to protect you and your identity. A private investigator can skip trace (and most do), but a skip tracer cannot be a private investigator without first obtaining licensing. They may not privately contract their work except to work for a debt collector.

There are too many fly-by-night people self-proclaiming that they know a lick about privacy and security. They come from backgrounds that have zero to do with information gathering. They read a book, watched some YouTube and voila! Instant privacy experts. They grandstand in order to motivate you into buying their Online course, video series, or play poker with them.

So, we go back to the point; you need to hire a person that is not only experienced in their current role as a privacy expert, but that also fully grasps how information is found. The former carpenter, Amazon store guru, or IT guy is not the person to hire for your privacy matters. It would be like hiring a mechanic to be your brain surgeon. Okay, they both have driven cars, and have technical jobs, but do you really want the mechanic working inside your head?

Relevance Of Modern Times

It is critical to hire someone relevant. Why? Because technology and information are changing rapidly. What worked in 2004 mostly does not apply today.Books you read on the subject of disappearing or anonymity that are easily found on Amazon, are entertaining, but they lack modern application. The information is far outdated and cannot really help someone today, except to give them a general concept of what may go into privacy, and that's a good start.

I love these guys that have written these books. They are some of the founding pioneers of this business. I started in 2002, I don't know when they started, but they are experienced. I recommend you read their books. Here are the names of the two authors: JJLuna, and Frank Ahearn. The current "rock star" is Michael Bazzell. Not only does he know his stuff, he is relevant with modern technology.

So Why Are We Drawing a Distinction Between Private Investigator and The Skip Tracer?

We get asked a lot about the difference in the two professions. People want to know what makes a private detective different that a skip tracer.

There is a huge difference, so let us share the distinctions now.

Private Investigators

Private investigators are licensed professionals who are hired to conduct investigations and surveillance for various reasons such as finding missing persons, conducting background checks, or investigating personal, business, or legal matters.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers, on the other hand, are professionals who specialize in locating individuals who have “skipped” or left without any notice, mainly for debt collection purposes. Their primary focus is on finding people who have become elusive for various reasons so that a debt can be collected by a debt collection agency.

Training and Licensure

Private Investigators

Private investigators often have a background in law enforcement or criminal justice and undergo rigorous training to obtain licensure. The licensure ensures they have a comprehensive understanding of the law, particularly concerning investigations and privacy rights.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers have no licensure requirements like a private investigator. Their training is more focused on understanding databases, and information retrieval techniques and they usually develop expertise in locating individuals through a variety of sources such as public records, online databases, and social media.

black and white office private investigator
Skillsets and techniques may have similarities, but there are stark differences between licensed and unlicensed serivces.

Skill Sets and Techniques

Private Investigators

Private investigators have a broad skill set encompassing surveillance techniques, understanding of criminal and civil law, and excellent analytical and problem-solving abilities. They leverage a variety of methods including physical surveillance, forensics, and cyber investigation techniques to gather information and solve cases.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers, on the other hand, have a skill set that is more focused on research and information gathering through non-conventional means. They are experts in using various databases, public records, and online resources to trace individuals who have gone off the radar.

If you are requiring help in obtaining anonymity, feel free to tell us how we can help by emailing us:

Differences in Private Investigators and Skip Tracers At a Glance


Contract To a Lawyer, Company, Person, or Government?

Limited To One Employer

​Can Access Proprietary Data

Full Investigative Powers










Yes – a debt collertor



Tools and Resources

Private Investigators

Private investigators utilize a range of tools including but not limited to:

  • Surveillance equipment: for stakeouts and tracking individuals.

  • Forensic tools: for analyzing physical and digital evidence.

  • Database access: for researching individuals’ backgrounds and gathering information pertinent to a case.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers primarily depend on:

  • Database access: to find people through a wide range of databases, both public and private.

  • Online tools and resources: to mine data from social media platforms and other online sources to track down individuals.

  • Communication skills: to negotiate and communicate effectively with individuals they are trying to locate in debt collection; also included is the ability to "social engineer" a person.

Working Methods

Private Investigators

Private investigators employ a wide range of methods and strategies to uncover information. These methods can include:

  • Physical Surveillance: Conducting stakeouts and tracking the movements of individuals.

  • Interviews and Interrogations: Gathering information by interviewing relevant parties and witnesses.

  • Forensic Analysis: Analyzing physical and digital evidence to piece together facts and draw conclusions.

  • Undercover Operations: Going undercover to gather information in discreet and potentially dangerous situations.

  • Legal Research: Reviewing court records, legal documents, and public records for pertinent information.

  • Skip Tracing: Finding people that have skipped out on a debt

  • People Locates: All other reasons to locate a person besides people that have skipped out on a debt.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers focus on locating individuals efficiently and discreetly. Their methods include:

  • Database Searches: Extensive use of databases, both public and private, to access information such as addresses, phone numbers, and financial records.

  • Social Media Monitoring: Tracking social media profiles and online activity to gather clues about a person's whereabouts or connections.

  • Public Records Searches: Accessing public records like marriage certificates, property records, and utility bills to find leads.

  • Contacting Relatives and Associates: Reaching out to friends, family members, or associates who may have information about the individual's location.

Applications and Industries

Private Investigators

Private investigators find applications in a wide range of industries including:

  • Legal: working with attorneys to gather evidence for court cases.

  • Corporate: investigating fraud, espionage, or other corporate malfeasance.

  • Personal: investigating personal matters such as infidelity, missing persons, or background checks.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers often work in:

  • Debt collection: working in the employ of a debt collection agencies to locate individuals who owe money.

  • Bail enforcement: working in the employ of a bail bondsman agency to find individuals who have skipped bail.

  • Repossession agencies: to locate individuals for recovering collateral or assets.

Ethics and Legal Boundaries

Private Investigators

Private investigators are held to high ethical and legal standards, as their work often involves sensitive information and surveillance. They must:

  • Obtain proper permissions and consents when conducting surveillance or accessing private information.

  • Adhere to state and federal laws regarding privacy and data protection.

  • Maintain confidentiality and protect the privacy of their clients and subjects of investigation.

  • Avoid any actions that could be considered harassment or invasion of privacy.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers must also operate within legal boundaries, especially when involved in debt collection. They must:

  • Comply with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and other relevant laws governing debt collection.

  • Avoid harassment or intimidation when attempting to contact and locate individuals who owe debts.

  • Protect the privacy of the individuals they are trying to locate and not disclose sensitive information to unauthorized parties.

The Intricacies of Investigations

Private Investigators

Private investigators delve deep into the intricate details of a case, uncovering layers of information, which often involves extensive investigations, detailed reports, and potentially testifying in court.

Skip Tracers

Skip tracers, in contrast, primarily focus on locating individuals, and their role typically ends once the individual is located for a debt collection agency. Their approach is generally more linear, focusing on the end goal of finding the person in question.

Why Does [redact] / Stay Licensed As Private Investigators?

Members of this firm are licensed private investigators and certified cyber security and investigator practitioners so that we stay relevant. We use access we have from 3 decades of experience to find information on our clients so that we can help them gain the privacy they need. When we conduct an assessment, we do so with all the tools, contacts, and resources a private investigator/skip tracer/cyber professional would use. This gives our clients a more comprehensive understanding of what information is available to snooping private eyes and skip tracers. Our cyber side of the house conducts deep open-source intelligence (OSINT) and comes from background in intelligence gathering and cyber intrusion.

Being the complete package, allows us to offer our clients the most comprehensive service available anywhere.


In the complex and nuanced world of investigative professions, private investigators and skip tracers operate in distinct realms with differing areas of expertise and focus. While both professions involve a high degree of investigative skill and research abilities, their roles, responsibilities, and the depth of their investigations can vary significantly.

Remember, most private investigators skip trace. But skip tracers are not allowed to contract any investigation or skip tracing for that matter, unless their locale does not require licensing. This is the distinction between a private investigator and a skip tracer.

Private investigators bring to the table a broad skill set, encompassing deep investigative skills, an understanding of legal frameworks, and an ability to handle complex, multifaceted cases. They are also given access to proprietary data sources such as a state level department of motor vehicles. They are often engaged in a variety of personal, corporate, and legal settings, working to uncover the truth through detailed investigations.

Skip tracers, on the other hand, specialize in finding individuals who have skipped town, primarily for debt recovery purposes. Their focus is narrow, utilizing an array of databases and online resources to track down individuals swiftly and efficiently. Though their role is often seen as more linear, the expertise required to locate individuals in a digital age is not to be understated.

Both private investigators and skip tracers play crucial roles in the society, aiding in the maintenance of legal and ethical standards, and ensuring that individuals are held accountable for their actions. They work within the frameworks of established legal boundaries, adhering to ethical guidelines to protect individuals' privacy and rights.

To sum up, the delineation between private investigators and skip tracers is marked by differences in training and licensure, skill sets and techniques utilized, tools and resources at their disposal, and the legal and ethical boundaries that guide their operations. While private investigators engage in deep, multi-layered investigations, skip tracers are adept at swiftly locating individuals through extensive online resources. Both professions, however, stand as pillars in the investigative landscape, offering their unique skill sets in service of justice and accountability.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the main difference between a private investigator and a skip tracer?

Answer: The main difference is in their focus and scope of work. Private investigators conduct comprehensive investigations, which can involve surveillance, background checks, and legal research for various purposes. Skip tracers, on the other hand, specialize in locating individuals who have gone missing, often for debt collection purposes.

What kind of training do private investigators receive compared to skip tracers?

Answer: Private investigators typically undergo rigorous training, often with backgrounds in law enforcement or criminal justice, and may be required to obtain a license. Their training includes understanding the law, surveillance techniques, and investigative methods. Skip tracers may not have as stringent training requirements, with a focus on database usage and information retrieval techniques.

Do private investigators and skip tracers use similar tools and resources?

Answer: While both may use databases, private investigators have a broader toolkit that includes surveillance equipment, forensic tools, and legal resources. Skip tracers primarily rely on database access, online tools, and communication skills to locate individuals swiftly.

In which industries do private investigators and skip tracers typically work?

Answer: Private investigators find applications in a wide range of industries, including legal, corporate, and personal matters. They work on cases such as legal investigations, corporate fraud, and background checks. Skip tracers often work in debt collection, bail enforcement, and asset recovery industries.

What ethical and legal boundaries do private investigators and skip tracers need to adhere to?

Answer: Both professions are bound by ethical and legal guidelines. Private investigators must protect individuals' privacy rights, operate within the boundaries of the law, and may face legal consequences for unlawful conduct. Skip tracers must adhere to laws such as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and avoid harassment or intimidation when locating individuals.

How do private investigators and skip tracers approach their investigations differently?

Answer: Private investigators delve deep into multifaceted investigations, often involving extensive research, surveillance, and potentially testifying in court. Skip tracers primarily focus on swiftly locating individuals and may not be involved in as detailed or multifaceted investigations.

Can one person be both a private investigator and a skip tracer?

Answer: Yes, it is possible for an individual to have skills in both areas, as they share some investigative techniques and research abilities. However, they are distinct professions with different primary focuses, so practitioners often specialize in one area. Private investigators can skip trace, skip tracers cannot be private investigators unless they become licensed.

How do private investigators and skip tracers contribute to society?

Answer: Both professions play crucial roles in maintaining legal and ethical standards. Private investigators help uncover the truth in various cases, while skip tracers aid in locating individuals who need to be held accountable for their financial obligations, all while operating within established legal boundaries and ethical guidelines.

These FAQs should help clarify the distinctions between private investigators and skip tracers and provide a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities.


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