1) Get all the information you can before you attempt service
One of the best steps you can take to make your life easier is to obtain as much information as you can from your client about the person you are serving. Your client will not always have helpful information but every little bit helps.
What is the defendant’s schedule? Do they work normal hours? This information will help you craft a plan to get the defendant served on your first attempt. It doesn’t do you any good to attempt service to an empty house. This information is also crucial so you don’t waste time staking out a house at times the defendant is unlikely to come or go.
What kind of vehicle does the defendant drive? I can’t count how many times I was able to catch a person trying to hide inside their home based on this information. If the defendant’s car is in the driveway, you know there is a better chance that the defendant is home. Feel the hood of the car before you knock on the door. Is it warm? That means the car was driven recently which may indicate a higher likelihood that the defendant is there. Having this information allows you to hone in and figure out whether they are home and hiding.
What does the defendant look like? Your client providing a photo of the defendant is ideal but even if they do not have one, get a description of the person you are serving. If you know your defendant is 6’4” and 300 pounds, you can play your hand differently if a short, skinny guy answers the door. Why blow your cover if you know the person you encounter does not fit the description you’ve been given? Furthermore, having an idea of what your defendant looks like is incredibly helpful when you encounter a person fitting the description that tries to lie about his or her identity. Being confident in asking questions of a person you believe to be the defendant helps break through their lies so you can complete the serve.
2) Do your research before leaving the office
This is a tip I cannot stress enough. By doing a little research online before you ever attempt service will save you time, money and sanity.
Determine what type of property you have been hired to visit. Attempting service to a business is obviously very different than attempting service to a home address. You need to know what awaits you at the address before you arrive.
Is there anything worse than arriving at the address you’ve been hired to serve and finding an apartment complex with dozens of individually numbered apartments and you weren’t given the unit number? Are you going to knock on dozens of doors trying to figure out where your defendant lives?
Sign up for an account with FASTWeb in order to obtain a property profile before you ever leave the office. Using this tool, you can learn whether a property is residential or commercial, whether it is a house, condo or apartment building and who owns the property. This information can often indicate whether a residential address is a rental unit or a family home so you can craft your service plan accordingly.
If you are hired to serve a business, do some searching online for information about the business. Who owns the company? Do they have locations other than the one provided to you by your client? Corporations registered with the State of California must provide a Registered Agent for Service of Process.
Visit this site to run a search on the corporation you are serving. If the registered agent is a person, you now know who to ask for when attempting service. Perhaps the agent is a lawyer with a different office address than the business. If the business is not a corporation, learning who the owners or principals are can go lengths to help focus your plan of attack like a laser beam.
3) Observe the location before knocking on the door
When serving a residential address, getting the lay of the land is crucial to your success. Before you ever approach the property you should look for signs of occupancy, signs of recent activity and how the property is laid out.
Are there lights on inside? Can you see in any of the windows even on the side or rear of the property? Many times I have seen shadows of people walking around inside even through closed window coverings. If you are lucky, you can identify your defendant inside before you knock on the door which can allow you to serve the papers whether the defendant wants to answer the door or not.
Is there a lockbox on the front door handle or a gate to the property? You know, those little boxes realtors or property managers will leave at a property than contain keys to the place? While not a sure sign of vacancy, many times such a lockbox on the front door will indicate that the unit is vacant and is being renovated or worked on prior to renting to a new tenant. You don’t want to spend your time knocking on doors to empty residences.
Are there garbage cans on the curb? This is a good one to look for. Once a garbage can is set out on a public street, you are not violating the law by lifting the lid and looking inside. You will be surprised how many times simply lifting the lid of a trash can on the street will reveal mail thrown away by an occupant. Now you know whether your defendant is receiving mail at the address which helps hone your plan for service. Every bit of information helps.
4) Listen for activity inside
Once you approach the door, listen for a few seconds before you ring the doorbell. Do you hear a TV or radio on inside? Can you hear people talking? This is valuable information that can change how you approach the serve.
Listen carefully when you ring the doorbell. Do you hear the bell ring inside? I’d guess that nearly half the doorbells I ring do not work. Don’t waste your time pushing the button if nothing happens. Knock, knock and knock again. When you ring the bell, does a dog bark inside? I always like hearing a dog inside when I knock or ring because it indicates that the place is not vacant and the owners of the dog will likely be home at some point to at least tend to the dog inside.
Keep an eye on the peephole. Most front doors have a round peephole that can be a very useful indicator of whether someone is hiding inside. Before you ring or knock, position yourself so you can see the little dot of light in the middle of the peephole. Keep this position after you knock or ring and look for the dot of light to go dark. I’ve busted so many people using this trick it’s crazy. Here’s how it works:
I see the dot of light in the peephole. I ring the doorbell. The dot of light disappears which means someone on the other side of the door is looking through the peephole. I smile and wave at the peephole so the person inside knows that I know that they are there. If they do not open the door, I ring or knock again and announce myself. “Hello, I’ve got a delivery for So-and-So. Hello?” This alone gets people to answer the door many times, especially if you have the papers tucked in your back pocket and you show that your hands are empty.
If your defendant is stubborn and your observation leads you to believe your defendant is inside, try, “Hello So-and-So, I know you are inside. I’m a process server hired to deliver notice of a lawsuit filed against you. There is no point in not taking the papers.”
Adding something like, “If you are not So-and-So, please let me know so I don’t have to keep bothering you.” This may get your defendant to open the door and try to lie to you, which you can see through if you’ve been given a photo of the defendant or by verbally outmaneuvering the defendant. With experience, your gut will tell you whether you are being lied to or whether the person answering the door truly is not the defendant or does not know the defendant at all. The instant reaction of the person answering the door speaks volumes once you are tuned into the signals.
5) Be overly polite
Sure, you are delivering bad news to someone. Sure, process servers are sometimes portrayed as jerks that aggressively confront defendants. However, I find that being very polite throws people off and will get you better information from the person answering the door. Many times, the reaction of the person answering the door tells you all you need to know about what is going on.
If I am knocking on someone’s door after dark, I will smile and lead with, “Hi there! Sorry to bother you so late but I have a delivery for So-and-So.” Serving early in the morning? Try this: “Hello, so sorry to wake you but I’m trying to reach So-and-So.” This approach throws off the person opening the door and may make them instinctively more prone to cooperate.
Once you know you have made contact with the defendant or someone else you can legally serve on behalf of the defendant, politely explain that you are serving notice of a legal matter and be as helpful as you can be. Point out the court date or the phone number for the plaintiff or the law office that filed the complaint. You cannot provide legal advice but you can provide general information about how the court process works for the particular type of papers you are serving. I have turned very confrontational, unpleasant situations around by politely answering questions I can answer and providing some basic information to a defendant. I’ve even been thanked by defendants that were quite angry with me at first because I was civil and explained to them what was going on.
Hopefully these tips will help you become a better and more efficient process server. If you can take the extra step and eliminate the need to return to an address for additional attempts at service, you are saving time and maximizing profit.
There is always something to learn when you are in the field. If you have your own tips to share, please leave a comment below so we can all add to our bag of tricks!