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Psychology of Skip Tracing


When we think about skip tracing or cyber investigations, we generally think of OSINT (Open-source Intelligence) and online database searches. And while this does play a large role in the art of skip tracing, there is something that plays an even more important and valuable role. Psychology!
We profile and judge people in our everyday life, if someone walks up to you on the street and asks you a question. The way they look, speak and posture themselves is being judged. This is based on our natural survival instinct. Our primal instincts are continuously evaluating our situation and people around us, for self-preservation.

So when someone walks up to you on the street to ask you a question you are immediately evaluating them to determine if they pose a risk to you, and most of the time we simply explain this as having a “gut feeling”.

In skip tracing and cyber investigations, you don’t get to meet the person of interest (POI), in most cases you will not even know what the POI looks like. So it is natural for investigators to simply focus on database searches and social media searches to find leads and information about their case.
Profiling is an area that allows investigators, no matter what type of case they are working. To build an understanding of the person they are investigating. This process can save a lot of time and even give you valuable information on a person’s location or motive. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process, there are some very basic principles that can help build a profile very quickly without having to write a 1,000 word document.

Two of the areas that help build a profile on a person are;

Freud's Structure of Personality..
Freud’s Structure of Personality..

The Structure of personality

The Structure of personality was famously defined by Sigmund Freud as having three elements. These are known as the ID, Ego and Superego.
ID – Primal instincts. Impuls & needs, and operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification.
Ego – Operates on the reality principle. Making compromises between the real world and the ID.
Superego – Deals with rules of right & wrong. The shoulds & shouldn’ts, and contains and image of our “ideal” self.

Theory of human motivation

Theory of human motivation (Maslow, 1943) also known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is used as the foundation of other theories of motivation and behavior. The theory asserts that we all have a set of basic needs that must be met, including biological and psychological, safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem and self-actualization.

Our primal needs are food, homeostasis, shelter and sleep, are critical to our survival. If these needs are not being met, it is difficult to focus on anything else. Once we have met these basic needs, we can start to focus on our needs further up the hierarchy.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

What does this have to do with skip tracing?

So how does all this relate to skip tracing or cyber investigations you may ask? It is simple. We all have the same basic needs, and until these needs are met, it is hard to focus on anything else.
Identifying what your POI’s motives are for hiding or committing an offence, is often right in front of you. For example; If you are working on a skip tracing case on behalf of a financial institution. What do you think the motive of the POI was to evade payment and contact?

Is it because their basic primal needs are not met? Or is it because they personality is primarily ID focused?

Do you believe a person with an ID prominent ego is going to have a large social footprint?

Often there is enough information in front of us to start working out what type of personality a POI has. A bank for example with have transaction statements that can help you identify a personality and where the POI sits on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this is known as Financial Intelligence or FININT. Previous conversations the client has had with the POI can also indicate this.

Social media accounts can be really good at identifying a POI’s location and can also give you some insight into that POI’s motivations in life. However, a social media account is by definition a hypocrite, a persona, that cannot be taken on face value.

Social media is a great place to find misinformation and disinformation. More and more we see people using social media to throw off investigators and even their closest friends. But there are often posts (as insignificant as they seem) that can give you some very good insight into a person’s state of mind.

The Rorschach test (also known as a projective tests), were psychologists show patients inkblots to evoke patents. This is simply a patient projecting their personality into the images giving the assessor a window into a person’s state of mind, emotions etc.

So when you see someone posting quotes and memes, that is actually them giving you insight into their current state of mind and situation.

What they are not posting is also just as important! This is something dating scammers look for, as they prey on people who are lonely with a strong ID personality. If you see someone posting a lot of photos by themselves, then posting memes and quotes about the value of friendship, this could indicate they are lonely and crave to belongingness. Some are very obvious, for example;
if you see someone posting a quote about how ex partners are so horrible or how it is terrible when your ex does xyz. Do you think that person has just broken up with someone? If they are posting quotes on backstabbing friends, do you think they feel a sense of belongingness or safety?


In a case involving a politicians mistress, it wasn’t databases that gave the most valuable lead in the case, it was profiling. If you are looking for someone who is heavily pregnant to someone in the media, do you believe they want to be in the spotlight? Do you believe the father to be will be hiding her away with his wife, kids and family?

Social media did help in this case. However, if you took the social media content to face value, it would lead you in the wrong direction. Monthly posts, every post with different hair colour in different locations. That tells you they are attempting to throw you off track. Looking deeper into the posts reflected they were 1 month behind. A post from today showing blonde hair in Brisbane for example, was actually of a photo taken the month prior.

It wasn’t until we started to profile the person we could start to understand the motive using maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Someone who is heavily pregnant who cannot rely on their child’s father to protect them, provide shelter and homeostasis, is going to look for these things somewhere else. And at times of need like this, family and close friends are normally called upon.

In this case, the POI was using social media to make everyone look in one direction when in fact they were on the other side of the country. It was obvious when you looked a little closer to the posts they made, the patterns in their posts and thinking about what is important to them in this stage in their life.

In a case related to a debtor, using a combination of FININT and HUMINT (human intelligence) we were able to identify the customer had a gambling addiction and managed to work out the POI’s location using a combination of FININT and OSINT.

So next time you have a case that seems impossible, take a step back and start looking at it from other angles. Start analyzing the person you are investigating, look at how their actions, posts or content fits in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Freud’s structure of personality.