Private Investigator Basics: Skip Tracing and Property Liens

What is skip-tracing?

Skip-tracing is one of the central functions of private investigation.

“Skip tracing is a process used to find a debtor who has relocated or disappeared to avoid legal responsibilities, such as debt payments. The skip-tracing process involves verifying a debtor’s information, searching public records and contacting people who know the debtor.” …according to an article at

Given that skip-tracing is a broad topic, this post will focus on one part of the process- doing a lien search.

What is a lien ?

“A ‘lien’ is a notice that attaches to your property, telling the world that a creditor claims you owe it some money. A lien is typically a public record” …according to a post at Nolo.

Liens are a common way for creditors to collect what they’re owed. When someone puts a lien on your property, that property effectively becomes collateral for the debt.

There are 4 kinds of liens to look for

  1. UCC lien search
  2. Federal tax lien search
  3. State tax lien search
  4. County tax lien – Judgment lien search

A tax lien differs from a UCC lien because a recorded UCC financing statement shows a borrower agreed to give a lender an interest in a particular property in exchange for a loan; it’s a consensual lien. Tax liens, whether federal or state, are non-consensual. The borrower didn’t agree to the government taking a security interest in their property.

In some cases, the debtor isn’t even aware there’s a tax lien against them

How to Search?

Finding a recorded UCC-1 financing statement is relatively straightforward: you query the Secretary of State (SOS) where the property is located, or where the borrower is incorporated.

The IRS files the Notice of Federal Tax Lien with the secretary of state, county clerk, or state recorder’s office to secure your tax debt.

Liens against property can be recorded at the Department of Land Records alongside deeds. Search for liens online using state (some examples here will be Maryland focused because that’s my background- Maryland Land Records)(

Some liens come from court judgments. If this happens, the lien may not be at Land Records. Go to state case searches (Maryland Case Search to search for court judgments against the property’s owner.)

Unpaid taxes on the property may result in a lien. Visit your local county or city’s finance office to find property tax or other municipal liens.

Walter Skluwer also adds the following advice:

Federal / ITS tax lien search – You can conduct a federal tax lien search at the following places:

  • State Recorder’s office
  • Secretary of State’s office
  • IRS Automated Lien System database
  • Private third-party database search services like Lien Solutions

State and county liens – Information on a tax lien is either maintained by the Secretary of State or the county tax office. Where the government records its interest depends on state law. Some states require recording certain interests at the state level. For example, Colorado files tax liens with its Department of Revenue’s Division of Taxation. Many others require agencies to secure liens in the county records office where the person, business, or property is located.

Several states have formed a tax lien registry which serves as a centralized location for recording and searching for tax liens. These states file all tax liens with the registry instead of at the county level, giving you one place to look instead of searching for information in several county offices

This is not very specific as the lien database varies depending on location, but with some patience this can be a useful way to gain info on a person of interest.

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