If you use the Internet, chances are you have some kind of social media account. A 2014 report by Ad Week showed that two-thirds of Americans over age 12 have at least one social media profile on networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn or Google Plus. Nearly 60 percent of Americans have an active Facebook profile, nearly 20 percent use Instagram or LinkedIn, 17 percent use Google Plus, and 16 percent use Twitter. It’s a simple fact that social media has become a dominant part of many people’s line lives.
We all know that we can expect advertisers to target us on social media. People who use Facebook or Twitter now see ads directly in their update streams — ads that often rely on collecting data from our social media profiles about our interests and key words in our posts and even tracking which other websites we visit.
But perhaps an unexpected use of a social media profile happens when debt collectors use social media to track down or contact someone about a debt. With the popularity of Facebook, it’s become more common for people’s real names to be used in social media profiles instead of anonymous handles. It’s also more common for somewhat personal information such as someone’s hometown or birth date to be out there in public. When that kind of information is public on your social media profile, a debt collector may be able to use it to find you and initiate contact over a debt.
There’s nothing that prevents a debt collector from using social media to track you down any more than they’d be prevented from looking you up in a phone directory. In fact, with more and more people only carrying cell phones that aren’t often listed in public phone directories, it might be easier for someone to find you on Facebook. There’s also nothing in current law that prevents a debt collector from contacting you through social media, but they may be required to do it via private message.
As is noted in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s annual report, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act doesn’t specifically address use of social media as an avenue for debt collections for the simple reason that social media didn’t exist when the law was written. That means that some uses of social media for debt collection activities may fall into gray areas that are yet to have solid interpretation by courts, the CFPB or Congress.
In general, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act doesn’t allow debt collectors to tell third parties about your debts, or to use deception or threats as part of collection activities. Those principles should apply to debt collectors’ use of social media the same way they do to letters or phone calls. For example, a debt collector likely wouldn’t be allowed to make a public post on your Facebook wall saying that you owe money as a way to shame you into paying. Nor would a debt collector likely be permitted to publicly tweet a list of people who owe them money, since they’re generally prohibited from publishing lists that name debtors.
However, with no hard and fast rules about use of social media, it may take complaints by consumers about debt collections via social media to prompt opinions and decisions from officials responsible for enforcing the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. It may be worthwhile for Congress to consider updating the act to address new technologies, or for the CFPB to propose rules under its administrative rule-making authority so that consumers are protected from abusive collection practices using these new technologies.
If you’ve been the subject of abusive debt collection activity, the consumer lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates may be able to help you stop the collection activity or negotiate a settlement of your debt. Call us today at (888) 726-3181 for a free consultation.