’You’re Served!’

Company finds those elusive defendants

By Bob Allen

David Kopel, founder and president of www.LegalPapers.net, with offices in Towson and Silver Spring, has brought increased sophistication to the often hit-or-miss proposition of process serving.

"How do you spell your last name? What's your street address?" Dave Kopel, founder and president of www.LegalPapers.net, a process serving company with offices in Towson and Silver Spring, asks a visitor.

Kopel casually enters those two crucial bits of personal information into a data base - he won't say which - and in about 10 seconds his computer displays the visitor's Social Security number, date of birth and a few other choice and confidential vital statistics.

It may seem like magic - maybe even black magic, if you're big on privacy issues. But Kopel says he uses only public records and open sources to track down and serve legal papers on the elusive debtors, defendants and deadbeat dads sought by the attorneys and collection agencies that use www.LegalPapers.net's services.

In other words, Kopel and his small office staff do their sleuthing legally and by the book.

But at www.LegalPapers.net, Kopel insists, his forensic detective work is done differently than at other, similar firms. He says that is why the company has not only survived but also grown steadily since Kopel founded it in 1987 in his basement.

"We tap the same reports and databases that attorneys and collection agencies use, plus some I can't tell you about," he says. "But the main thing that separates us from our competitors is that we are a very detail-oriented company."

Kopel started his business on a shoestring, with $500 to his name and no steady clients. Today he has a small, full-time office staff and about 40 full- and part-time process servers who serve about 3,000 documents a month in Maryland, Washington and around the country.

Michael S. Neall, an Annapolis attorney who specializes in representing community associations, has been using www.LegalPapers.net for about six months. Neall says he's pleased with the results so far.

"I use Kopel mostly for employment investigations, asset location and for (wage) garnishment purposes," says Neall. "He certainly has found information that others have failed to find in the past.

"There is also little delay between the time I send Dave information and when he turns it around, which is very unusual," Neall adds. "That often saves a lot of time in determining whether or not we're going to be able to recover the money" owed in a judgement.

Kopel says the reason www.LegalPapers.net has flourished while quite a few other process servers and tracking agencies have fallen by the wayside is the level of technology, research and methodology his company brings to what tends to be a hit-or-miss procedure. After all, process servers are usually trying to serve legal documents on people who don't want to be served and often go to great and ingenious lengths to avoid it.

It's against the law for a process server to pose as a police officer or a UPS or Federal Express delivery man. But that's not to say Kopell and his servers don't use some clever _ and legal _ ruses to track down defendants. When calling the home of someone evading service, they sometimes gather vital information by posing as a long-lost friend from high school, or someone offering a job, or even someone who has a check the defendant forgot to pick up when he or she left a former job.

Les Roth, a North Waverley resident, works as a process server for www.LegalPapers.net and several other firms. In the course of his work, he has been threatened, kissed by a pregnant woman and had a two-by-four thrown at his car, he said. (In that instance Roth sued and ultimately won $600 damages from the defendant, who also ultimately lost the case on which Roth had served him papers.)

Once, Roth was trying to serve a man in downtown Baltimore. He had no physical description, but he knew the man drove a green BMW. He showed up where he worked, spotted the green car and staked it out.

Then, tired of waiting, he tried another tack. He rushed into the office and announced, "I just hit a green 'Beamer!' " The distressed BMW owner rushed out and promptly got served.

"Most days aren't like that," says Roth. "But you do get a little low level of hostility every day. ... The way I look at it is, there is somebody somewhere out there taking up a few cubic feet of space and it's my job to find them. I take every case as a challenge."

Despite all the hard work and ruses, only about 70 to 75 percent of the papers www.LegalPapers.net is charged with serving actually get served.

In most other businesses that would be a shabby track record. Yet, according to the National Association of Professional Process Servers, only about 42 percent of legal documents that process servers attempt to serve across the nation actually are served. And those numbers can be tough for process servers who work on a "no service, no fee" basis, as many do.

"Fifteen years ago we were serving nearly 95 percent," Kopel says. "It's definitely harder for people to hide these days," due to changes in the law and the advent of technology, he adds. Yet, "people move around more than they did 15 years ago, and they don't pay their debts."

Often, according to Kopel, when a summons or judgment comes back to an attorney or collection agency unserved, only a cursory Web search is done for a more current address before the document is sent back out for a second try. So the service is not performed and the cycle is repeated, explaining why it often takes months to merely set a trial date or start collecting on a debt through wage garnishment or property liens.

By breaking that unproductive cycle of non-service, he's been able to grow his company, Kopel says.

For a number of years, www.LegalPapers.net was the process server for child support cases in Anne Arundel County. Kopel takes pride in the fact that over a two-year period he raised the process serving success rate there from 55 percent to 74 percent.

Kopel will work for clients on a "no service, no fee" basis. But he prefers more involved, research-intensive approaches that cost more but are also more apt to produce results.

Using customized software and "mining" data bases like Lexus/Nexus, ChoicePoint and Merlin Information Systems, Kopel and his staff will gather past and present information on a subject's address, employment, banking and property ownership.

Www.LegalPapers.net's servers are also trained to gather other pertinent information, such as what the subject's house looks like, what the name on the mailbox is and what kinds of vehicles are in the driveway.

Occasionally they will find out from neighbors what time the subject leaves for work and returns home. If neighbors aren't home the servers will leave stickers on their doors asking them to call if they have information on the individual being sought.

"You'd be surprised how often they call," says Kopel.

If necessary, and if a client cares to spend an extra $25 an hour, the residence will be staked out until the subject finally appears and can be served.

Kopel says his staff's expertise in finding people often enables them to collect debts directly for clients instead of working through attorneys and collection agencies that often charge more.

Kopel says the procedures he's developed make him a little like one of those "road show" antique appraisers who sometimes turn junk from people's attics into treasure. But instead of junk in attics, he sometimes turns uncollected judgment decrees gathering dust in attorneys' file cabinets into money in the bank.

"Most attorneys have a closet full of judgments, which are good for 12 years," he says."We tell them to pull them out and give them to us. For $20 to $50 each, what have you got to lose?"

Article Courtesy of "The Jeffersonian Newspaper"

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