Imagine logging on to Facebook and finding a new message in your inbox. It’s not from a family member or an old friend. Instead, it’s a debt collector asking why you haven’t paid up yet.
This situation is more likely than you may think. Debt collectors are now using social media as yet another way to contact debtors, in addition to phone calls, letters, text messages and emails.
While some such online actions are legal, consumers complain that Facebook messages are at least overkill and are calling for new regulations. Other online communications by debt collectors cross the line into clearly illegal territory, yet with few Internet regulations in place, debtors have limited resources to stop online harassment.
Because of an influx of related consumer complaints, the Federal Trade Commission plans to discuss potential new measures and regulations concerning debt collection and new media.
Any public information is fair game. It’s relatively standard practice for debt collectors to do some research online about debtors.
If you list your phone number and address publicly on Facebook, for example, collectors can use this information to reach you by phone or mail. If you publicly post pictures from a luxurious vacation or write about your brand-new sports car, collectors will use this information to argue that you can afford to pay your debts.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) states that collectors are prohibited from harassing you, regardless of the means of communication. The law also states that collectors must respect your privacy.
This means that debt collectors cannot take actions like writing to you on your Facebook wall, as this is public communication visible to others.
They also cannot repeatedly send private messages to you, as repeated contact can constitute harassment. However, collectors may be able to contact you once via a private Facebook message, or once per any given time period; this is a gray area currently up for debate.
Another questionable practice is contacting friends and family members via Facebook. In certain situations, collectors are permitted under the FDCPA to contact friends and family members of a debtor. However, the correspondence should only be an attempt to obtain contact information for you, the debtor. Collectors cannot disclose your financial information and cannot contact third parties if they already have your contact information.
What Can You Do?
While these practices are questionable at best and outright illegal at worst, they’re still happening with increasing frequency.
If you owe a debt (or even if you don’t), it’s a good idea to check your privacy settings on all your social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. On Facebook, for example, you can adjust your settings so that only certain people can see certain information; it’s a good idea to have personal information and posts visible only to people you know. You can also prevent non-friends from writing on your wall or sending you messages.
Additionally, be aware of each friend request you receive. If you don’t know someone, don’t accept the request.
If you believe debt collectors have already violated your rights under the FDCPA, you can take action against them. It’s important to collect evidence in this type of situation. Make note of any online correspondences with debt collectors, including Facebook messages.
It’s a good idea to then contact the debt collection agency directly. Write a letter to the agency or agent requesting that they stop contacting you and your relatives online.
You are also entitled to sue if the collector has broken the law and violated your rights. To discuss your potential case, you can contact your state’s Attorney General’s office or a private attorney.
What Will the FTC Do?
Officials at the Federal Trade Commission acknowledge that collection laws are rapidly becoming outdated. After all, the FDCPA dates back to 1977, long before online privacy became an issue.
The FTC plans to address these concerns later this year. It plans to host a public workshop on April 28 to discuss the role of new technology, including social media, in debt collection.
For now, however, law enforcers don’t have many options to curb online actions of debt collectors.