Legal Ease, vol6

logo-black-lobelloDebt Collection in the Social Media Age
By Kevin Hernandez, Esq.
July 2015

In an age where social media is ubiquitous, some debt collectors are catching on to its wide-spread use to assist in collecting debts, and sadly, to threaten and harass consumers. “Normally, collectors use social media to locate people or see if there are any assets that might be collectable,” notes Joel Winston with the Federal Trade Commission. “But we have received a few complaints about collectors who are using social media to either impersonate the person’s friends or otherwise use it for harassment.”

For debt collectors looking for an (illegal) edge, social media can be a powerful way to intimidate someone into paying a debt. Collectors can post messages that let the world know you are in collections, or contact specific persons about your debt, such as your employer, friends, or colleagues.  These communications represent clear violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits, among other things, harassment of debtors, and contacting third parties concerning a debt (under most circumstances).

Both Facebook and Twitter implement limited protections against harassment, such as the ability to ban a user or remove posts. However, this limited authority is often too late to protect a debtor from the embarrassment associated with a debt-related post or other harassing information released to the public through social media. And savvy debt collectors will simply open another account under a different name to continue the unlawful activity.

The terms and conditions for most social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, are used primarily to protect themselves, rather than their users. However, included below are some applicable terms and conditions, which may be used in conjunction with federal consumer laws to protect you against unfair or harassing debt collection efforts on social media:

Facebook
3. Safety.
We do our best to keep Facebook safe, but we cannot guarantee it. We need your help to do that, which includes the following commitments:

6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
7. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

9. You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.
5. Protecting Other People’s Rights
We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.
1. You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.

7. If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their       information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it.
8. You will not post anyone’s identification documents or sensitive financial information on Facebook.

Twitter
You are responsible for your use of the Services, for any Content you post to the Services, and for any consequences thereof.
Impersonation:  Impersonation is a violation of the Twitter Rules. Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner     may be permanently suspended under the Twitter impersonation policy.
Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information,    such as credit card numbers, street address or Social             Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.
Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post threats of violence against others or promote violence against others.
Unlawful Use: You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply     with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.

In addition to harassment, debt collectors often use social media to locate debtors and their assets. What you post on Facebook or Twitter, such as contact information, location of assets, and admissions concerning your debts is fair game for anyone to see and use, especially during litigation. If you are in collections or facing a lawsuit, you should limit your social media posts to innocuous subject matter, unassociated with your assets, the alleged debt, or the ongoing litigation.  Under federal and state rules of evidence, these messages will almost certainly be used against you, so post with caution.

Although social media has increased our overall connectivity and allowed millions to share their thoughts and ideas with the world, it may also be used to harass, abuse, and intimidate.  This is especially true in the context of debt collection.  Consumers should be aware of their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Fair Credit Reporting Act, and Telephone Consumer Protection Act to ensure unscrupulous debt collectors follow the law, and avoid illegal, harassing collection tactics.