Tracing is a highly specialised and skilled activity which has to be undertaken with due regard to the Data Protection Act 1998.
Avoiding a tracing situation
Obtaining the correct information from the start
There are obvious steps a business must take to avoid a tracing/gone-away situation occurring. Start by getting complete and correct contact details for every customer via a proper Account Opening Form. This must include the correct address and telephone details which you should double check against alternative sources, such as the Yellow Pages. In the case of a limited company, request the full Limited name and registration number; and for a proprietorship/partnership, ensure that you take private address details and telephone numbers.
Using a Credit Reference Agency to check the credit viability of new and existing customers will often throw up any address anomalies which can then be double checked directly with your customer.
Keeping track of your customers
Regular contact with your existing customers, particularly those with outstanding debts, will mean that you quickly become aware if a debtor relocates. Do not just issue invoices to customers and wait for their payment to arrive! Contact them by phone to enquire politely whether your invoices have been received, and in doing so, you can verify that the address and telephone details you have are still accurate.
Further information can be gained from your delivery operations. Ask your delivery staff to alert you to anything suspicious about the way goods or services are delivered e.g. whether or not the customer insists on collecting the goods, without adequate verification of their trading addresses.
Remember, the longer you leave an overdue debt, the more difficult it becomes to recover, and the more likely you are to find yourself in a situation where the debtor is not contactable.
Practical steps to tracing debtors
If a letter is returned via Royal Mail marked 'Addressee Not Known' or 'No longer at this Address', NEVER ASSUME that this is actually the case as many practised debtors simply return a letter as 'Gone Away' to give themselves more time.
Start by taking the following steps:
- Double check your own information to see if you have misspelt or made any errors on the original information. If you identify an error, reissue your invoice immediately using the correct address details.
- Dial telephone numbers and re-check via a directory-enquiry facility to ensure that you have the correct telephone number.
- Try a recorded delivery letter as this may be accepted and thus confirm occupancy.
If the debtor appears to be no longer trading from the premises you have details for, then consider the following:
- Contact your debtor's local Royal Mail Sorting Offices as they may have forwarding addresses for the business, or may simply confirm that the subject is 'still at the address'.
- If you operate in the vicinity, use your delivery drivers or staff to seek information from the address or from its neighbours. However, you must have due regard to the Data Protection Act 1998. In particular, do not divulge to non-interested parties any information about a debt. You are seeking general information on a 'Private Matter' – "there a forwarding address that they know of?"
- If you know of any other suppliers that your customer uses, contact them to enquire if they have been notified of their change of address.
- For businesses rather than individuals, use the Yellow Pages for the area of enquiry to identify and telephone businesses/newsagents in the locality who may well know the business or have useful information on the business's status. Again you must have due regard to the Data Protection Act when making such enquiries.
- Look at the Status/Credit Reference Report you may have obtained when opening the account as this may give you alternative addresses. In the case of a limited company, you are entitled to contact the directors, particularly the Company Secretary, who has an obligation to inform any interested party of the status of the limited company. You can contact these individuals at their home address or address lodged with Companies House but you cannot make them individually liable for any debt. A polite question should help you establish whether, for example, the company has entered liquidation, or a voluntary arrangement. If this is the case, you may need to seek professional advice about your rights as an unsecured creditor to a limited company.