Debt Collectors’ Newest Weapon: Facebook

Debt collectors are turning to social media to locate those who owe, but a ruling in Florida this week may have creditors thinking twice before trying to “friend” a person in debt.

A St. Petersburg judge ordered Mark One Financial LLC of Jacksonville to stop contacting one debtor’s friends and family on Facebook in an attempt to find Melanie Beacham. Beacham, who owed $362 on an unpaid car loan, filed suit against the company last August after Mark One began messaging her friends and family to have her contact the agency, according to reports.

While the Florida ruling applies only to Mark One, it is probable that new consumer protection laws will be made surrounding the use of social media for debt collection, according to Personal Finance Expert Gerri Detweiler of Using Facebook is legal when trying to locate a debtor, Detweiler said, but it has to be done the right way.

“They have to follow the law—it's not necessarily that they can’t use Facebook to find more information about a debtor,” she said. “For consumers, if you owe debt, be well aware that anything you post online is fair game for a collector.”

When it comes to debt collection, it is important for those in debt to know when a creditor is out of line. Here are some of the things that creditors are not allowed to do:

No. 1: Hide their identity. There is a certain amount of disclosure required when attempting to collect from debtors, Detweiler said, whether a creditor is contacting you through writing, on the phone or in-person. “It’s referred to as a mini-Miranda,” she said. “They have to say who they are and that they are attempting to collect debt. Hand-in-hand with that, they can’t pretend to be somebody else.” Creditors can never contact a debtor under false pretenses or conceal their true identity.

No. 2: Their contacts are limited. Legally, creditors are only allowed to contact you, your attorney, any co-signers and your spouse, Detweiler said. If they are trying to locate you, they may ask others if they know where you may be, but cannot reveal that they are trying to collect money. “Any contact with third parties must cease once they have located you,” she said. “If they friend you on Facebook, they can’t reach out to your neighbors online afterwards.”

No. 3: Get it in writing. Within five business days creditors are required to provide you with a notice of the debt owed in writing. The notice should say who is owed; the amount owed, and should provide the owed party’s contact information.

No. 4: They can’t contact you at work. That is, if you ask them not to. A creditor can contact you at work when trying to locate you, but can never disclose any debt information to co-workers or higher-ups. “You are allowed to stop them from contacting you at work,” Detweiler said. “And they can never threaten to tell people about your debt, or threaten your job.”

No. 5: Contact you if you ask them not to. Those in debt do have the right to ask a creditor to not contact them again. “You may leave them with no other option than to sue,” Detweiler said. “But, if so, you can only be contacted by them again if they are taking you to court.”