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Are Debt Collectors Your “Friends?” Social Networks and Debt Collection

The Federal Trade Commission recently held a seminar entitled "Debt Collection 2.0" and among the usual discussions of debt collection was a new topic: "Using Social Media for Debt Collection: Consumer Information, Collector Communications, and Privacy Issues."

Using social media, like Facebook and Twitter for debt collection purposes is something new. Joel Winston of the FTC told MSNBC, "We have received a few complaints about collectors who are using social media to either impersonate the person's friends or otherwise use it for harassment."

Social media may be used by debt collectors for research. Whatever you put on your public site is fair game; however, creditor harassment is not a permissible activity.

"You can't write on someone's wall on Facebook. You can't harass. You can't threaten. The laws are pretty clear in that regard," Mark Schiffman, director of public affairs for a debt collection trade group, was quoted by MSNBC as saying.

He noted, "These laws are not guidelines: They are laws." And we believe firmly that any debt collector who is breaking the law or not following the rules, deserves to be held accountable for their actions."

Suing the Debt Collector

In Florida, the first court order forbidding a debt collector from using social media for collections was issued in a pending case. Collection agency MarkOne used Melanie Beacham's Facebook account to contact her friends and family members.

She felt her privacy had been violated and that the behavior was pure harassment, an activity that is prohibited by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act that states, "Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact."

She had already agreed to a payment plan, and there would have been no reason to contact anyone else, as MarkOne had her phone numbers (home and work), and physical and e-mail addresses.

The court order was consented to by MarkOne, is not an admission of any violation of law and will not be admissible as evidence in the case. The order stops MarkOne from contacting Beacham or her friends via any social network.

The Dangers of Social Media

Social media can be fun and an easy way for you to keep in contact with people. Nevertheless, you should remember that anything that goes on your pages could become public information.

If you are receiving collection calls and letters, you can expect that the collection agency has begun scouring the Internet for your presence.

They would love to know that you just came back from an expensive vacation or went out to eat at an exclusive restaurant. Posting about how much you paid for new clothes might not be a great idea.

In the same way that a divorce attorney can discover a great deal about the other side during a divorce case, debt collectors will also use social networks.

Unsettled Law

Given the newness of this issue, the FTC is still weighing what sort of regulation is necessary.

Some suggest Fair Debt Collection Practices Act should be revised to take into account the newer technologies, like cell phones, text messaging and social networks, none of which existed when the FDCPA was drafted in the 1970s.

Caution is advised in any use of social media, especially if you don't want your newest "friend" to be a debt collector.

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