Banks can face severe penalties for disclosing private information about their customers. But that doesn't mean they will not do so in certain limited situations, usually in connection with a court order or legal proceeding. You could, for example, send a subpoena to every bank in your state or town. If your debtor has a bank account, you'll eventually get a response. But sending a subpoena to every bank can get very expensive. You will need to narrow down the number of options by reviewing public documents.
Sue your debtor. In most states, you are going to need a judgment — an award of money by a judge — to be permitted to collect money from a bank account. By suing your debtor, even in small claims court, you may obtain this judgment.
Go to the local courthouse. If your debtor has ever been sued or sued someone else, it is a matter of public record. You can go to the courthouse and review the filings in the case or cases. These records may turn up information about bank accounts, assets and loans. In addition, if your debtor has been sued or is in the midst of a lawsuit, his opposing party may be willing to "team up" to locate hidden bank accounts.
Don't limit yourself to one courthouse or one type of court. Records may be found in federal court, bankruptcy court or criminal court. If your debtor was divorced, you may find records in family court. Additionally, many states have justices of the peace and magistrate judges who handle small-court matters. There may be several of these in a single county, and searching their court records may be time-consuming.
Research other public documents. Most people would find it difficult to pay a mortgage without a checking account. Therefore, if your debtor has a mortgage, she likely has a bank account. Mortgages are public documents, available for review through your local county offices, sometimes in the same building as the court records. Many banks offer customers with mortgages free or discounted checking. So if you know where your debtor has a mortgage, you have a good chance of finding her bank. There are many other public documents that can give you a good clue — from articles of incorporation to registries of business and trade names.
Review your own records. If you had a business dispute with this debtor, you may have records in your possession indicating where this former customer banks. For example, if he has written you a check, you know where he banks. If you have written him a check, the returned check will contain information that will lead you to the bank account.
Issue subpoenas. Once you have obtained a judgment against your debtor, many jurisdictions allow you to hold a judgment-debtor hearing in which you can question your debtor about the existence of any assets — including bank accounts — that can be used to satisfy a debt. But if your debtor doesn't show up in court, you may have a good idea as to where your debtor banks from the review of public documents and your own records. You can then issue subpoenas — this usually requires a lawyer — to obtain information.
Large data brokers, such as LexisNexis, Accurint or ChoicePoint, may be able to perform many of these tasks electronically, with a subscription.
Obviously, some of these tasks are expensive, and it may not be worth it to collect a small debt. Analyze the costs and benefits of each of these actions.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act restricts the activities of debt collectors and may make it a crime to disclose the existence of debts to third parties. Be careful and consult with an attorney or expert.
Philadelphia-based freelancer Pat Kelley has been writing since 2002, most recently for Scripps Texas Newspapers. He has won numerous awards for reporting. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science.