The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) was designed to protect consumers against abusive practices by the debt collections industry. But when FDCPA took effect in 1978, few people could have anticipated how Facebook and Twitter would infiltrate our daily lives. In recent years, a handful of lawsuits by consumers who were allegedly contacted by collectors through social media have brought the issue to light.
One strategy collections agencies use, according to Michelle Dunn, a 24-year veteran of the debt-collection industry and author of The Guide to Getting Paid, is to set up a fake profile and try to friend someone (however, a few states have laws against online impersonation). "If you look like a really good-looking girl, a lot of people would accept a friendship even if they don't really know the person," she explains. Dunn says she discourages this practice in her webinars on social media and collections. "I just tell them to use common sense," she says. "Don't pretend you're someone you're not. There shouldn't be any interaction."
FDCPA doesn't explicitly forbid collectors from, say, posting on your Facebook wall or tweeting your relatives to ask about your whereabouts. But according to Craig Thor Kimmel, an Ambler, Penn.-based consumer attorney who handles collections issues, the act's intent is clear. "A debt collector that posts about your debt on social media would be violating this statute very clearly because that privacy is compromised," he says.
Despite this, collectors can use information found on a social network to contact you in other ways. "Right now, the normal pre-social media method would be to use the address off the loan documents and statements, but if the consumer is unwilling to respond to the contacts or is at a different location, they can certainly use social media as way of finding the consumer," says John Ulzheimer, president of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com.
Experts suggest the following strategies to preempt unwanted calls or other communication from collectors:
1. Respond within 30 days of receiving a collections letter. For many people who receive a letter from a collections agency, the impulse is simply to bury their heads and ignore it. That's a mistake, according to Ulzheimer. "You can eliminate all communication," he says. "All you have to do is send them a letter within 30 days and tell them, 'Do not contact me anymore through any method.' They can still sue you for the debt, so the act of collecting doesn't necessarily stop, but they can't send you emails or call you anymore."
If you actually owe the debt, he suggests offering a settlement so that it doesn't continue to follow you. Third-party agencies who've purchased the debt "don't have the same skin in the game as the original creditor, so you could offer some sort of reasonable settlement and be done with it."
2. Use those privacy settings. Dunn said she's shocked by the number of consumers whose Facebook profiles are set to completely public. "Even though I'm not your friend, I can see all your pictures," she says. Setting your profile to private reduces the likelihood that a collector could be eying your wall or photos.
3. Be selective about what you post. Social networks like Facebook can create a false sense of intimacy because you're communicating with friends. Even with a private profile, your friends' accounts could still get hacked or someone could be peeking over their shoulder, so it's smart to err on the side of under-disclosing.
Dunn says collectors use social media profiles to "look for the address or employment information. A lot of people put what their occupation is, where they work, cell phone numbers." For instance, when someone gets a new cell phone number, they'll sometimes post it on Facebook so friends can reach them. "I have to say if I was somebody who owed money, I probably wouldn't put [my cell number] online and make it public information," adds Dunn.
Most people know not to post their Social Security or credit card numbers, but many list their birth date. "To me, that's comical," says Ulzheimer. "If someone walked up to you off the street and asked your birth date, would you give it on the street? But you're gladly doing it on Facebook."
4. Don't accept friend requests from strangers. For reasons described earlier, don't approve requests from people you don't know. It could be a friend of a friend, but it could also be a collector or a spammer.
5. Skip the "like" button. Liking your bank or credit card company on Facebook may open the door to them collecting information about you that you haven't given them. "How many people actually like their bank?" ponders Ulzheimer. "To the extent that you like your bank, that's fine, but I'm not sure that you have to memorialize that by clicking that you like it on Facebook."
If despite these steps, a collector contacts you via a social media site, Kimmel suggests printing out the message or saving a screenshot to your computer to create a paper trial. "Once you have that, report the sender as spam on Facebook and file a grievance with the Federal Trade Commission," he suggests. The consumer could be entitled to up to $1,000 plus attorney fees and actual damages "if a debt collector engages in unauthorized debt collection contact, through, for example, social media," says Kimmel, adding that a consumer attorney could help the person seek redress.