As text messages replace phone calls and social media grows as the primary way we stay connected with friends and family, debt collectors are using new ways to reach and keep tabs on debtors.
That’s forcing regulators to modify long-standing rules, reining in some debt collectors’ use of new technology and new media.
The Federal Trade Commission enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and in late March the agency clarified that while it’s OK to use text messages and social media to contact debtors, debt collectors cannot be deceptive in doing so.
What does this mean? Well, the only debt collection communication explicitly forbidden remains the postcard, because the debt can easily be revealed to a third party. However, using social media and texts to collect on a debt isn’t exactly a free-for-all.
If you’re being contacted by a debt collector through text or social media, know your rights:
1. Creditors and collection agencies can’t tell your friends and family about your debt.
It is illegal for collectors to disclose the existence of debts to anyone other than authorized individuals (such as an attorney representing the debtor, spouses, parents or guardians of minors who may have accounts, executors and administrators) — unless the debtor gives permission to disclose that information. In addition, debt collectors cannot publicly post about your debt on any social media site.
2. Creditors and debt collection agencies can’t contact you — or your social media connections — under false pretenses.
If debt collectors are going to attempt to reach you through text or social media, they must do so in a way that makes their intentions clear. Sending a Facebook friend request, for instance, could violate the law if you don’t know who they are or why they are contacting you. In addition, they can’t make up a story in order to get personal information about you from your friends or family.
3. Texts can’t be designed to deceptively resemble fraud alerts.The FTC cites “YOUR PAYMENT DECLINED WITH CARD xxxx-xxxx-5463 … Call immediately” as an example. The text, similar to ones sent by defendants in the Messaging for Money law enforcement sweep, were “a sneaky – and illegal – way” for collectors to get a response from debtors.
While harassment and deceptive collection practices aren’t allowed with texts and social media — or any other form of communication for that matter — debt collectors can use these channels in ways that aren’t against the law.
For instance, debt collectors may collect public information from your social media accounts as well as from the pages of your connections.
Just because a debt collector hasn’t “friended” you on Facebook, it doesn’t mean he can’t see enough public posts and pictures to determine basic information, such as where you live, work or what kind of car you drive. All of this information can be compiled to make initial contact or attempt to make a case against you.
Even if you have stringent privacy settings, your information can be pulled from the pages of your connections, such as messages you’ve written or pictures you’ve been tagged in.
So as with everything you post on social media, be careful. You never know who is checking you out online. It might even be a debt collector.