Guess who’s viewing your online profile? If an image of the person you met at a friend’s party last week comes to mind you better guess again.

Some debt collection agents are surreptitiously checking out your online social network profiles in order to wring out the money you owe on a credit card or other debt.

Collection agencies are actually setting up fake Facebook accounts and are sending out friend requests to those who owe money. It’s devious, clever and…..legal.

These fake friends can scour  your information and find out where you live, your phone number, where you work and even check out your photos, including the ones that show you with expensive property or products that haven’t yet been paid for. 

Here are a few tips when posting things online to protect yourself from unfriendly users:

    •Be very careful who you friend and who you accept as a friend

    • Don’t brag about new purchases or your financial situation

    • Don’t talk about tax breaks you may have received

    • Don’t mention freelance income or any other income that you generate

    • Be aware of what information is publically available on social networks

Debt collectors can use information you post online to determine where you live and work to possibly garnish your wages, and see how you’re spending your money.

They could glean from your Facebook posting or Tweets that you like to dine out or take part in other social events that cost money – money you’re not supposed to have. This type of information can make a collector more aggressive. 

If you use Facebook Places, Foursquare or other GPS-enabled social networking tools that are tied to your cell phone, a debt collector can stalk you and follow your daily habits and what stores you visit. If the debt collector is aggressive, they can locate you and confront you in person.

Consumers are using social networks like Tweet What You Spend, Blippy and Bundle to track their expenses and discuss their personal spending habits. Bundle, for instance, allows members to view other member’s information anonymously, which means a stranger could be tracking your spending habits. That stranger could be a debt collector who now has a bird’s-eye view of exactly what you’re spending your money on.

Right now the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which hasn’t been amended since 2006, doesn’t prevent debt collectors from doing this sort of investigative work. There's nothing in the Act that forbids collectors from using Facebook or other social media sites to gather information to collect debts.

Because social networking has become the norm and is recognized as a way of sharing information, institutions such as banks and credit card agencies are finding ways to tap into that source of data. The reality is, it’s becoming harder than ever to hide from creditors, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Facing up to debt and finding a sensible way to deal with debt can be for the best. Sometimes a debt collector is doing you a favor by forcing you to face up to your responsibility.

In any event, you still need to use some common sense while using Facebook, Twitter or any other social network. Don’t disclose to the public things that you wouldn’t want a stranger to know, such as your financial status, the loss of a job or other pertinent information. Be smart with your personal information. If you wouldn’t share certain things with people face to face, why broadcast it to thousands? You never know who might be reading.

 

Howard Dvorkin, CPA, is the founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc., and the author of Credit Hell: How To Dig Out of Debt.   He is also personal finance expert and consumer advocate who has been helping people for more than 15 years.