Written by attorney Tracey M. Martin-Henry

Consumer Protection Series: Can Creditors Contact Me on Facebook?

DETROIT--Connecting with people on social media can be fun but, what happens if you mistakenly friend a bill collector on Facebook? Financial difficulties can happen to the best of people in this economy. And, just because bill collectors offer you a "digital cupcake" and you take the bait, doesn't mean that they can post to your Facebook wall or announce the debt on Twitter in an attempt to embarrass you. That's what happened to a Florida woman named Melanie Beacham. After she fell behind on her car note, Beacham started receiving as many as 23 calls per day from MarkOne Financial, which also emailed and texted her before it found her on Facebook. MarkOne then allegedly proceeded to relentlessly send her messages about the debt she owed. The company also allegedly sent such messages about her past due car note to every single person on her Facebook friends list. Beacham hired Billy Howard, a Florida-based debt harassment attorney to sue MarkOne Financial and they won. In a precedent-setting case, a Florida judge put a stop to the phone calls and on-line messages in a preliminary ruling, barring the debt collector from calling her or from contacting her family or Facebook friends. The ruling also stops debt collectors from posting messages about the debt on Facebook walls or sending messages to friends to tell the debtor to return the calls. In addition, bill collectors can't send someone an online marketing come on called a digital cupcake that when opened reveals bitter and harassing messages, such as "Mmm, tasty! Now that you've had a second free lunch, how about paying what you owe, Deadbeat? Thanks, from your debt collector." Tips for Avoiding Creditor Harassment on Social Media ? Don't make any information public on Facebook or other social networking sites that you wouldn't want a stranger to know about. ? Don't friend people you don't know if it means giving them access to private information, no matter how attractive their profile pictures may be. ? Consider adjusting you Facebook account security settings to make wall posting only possible for you or a select few. ACA International (a trade association for credit and collection agencies) indicates that the association cautions its members to be very careful about using social media to contact people that might owe money. "You can't write on someone's wall on Facebook. You can't harass. You can't threaten. The laws are pretty clear in that regard," said Mark Schiffman of ACA International. "These laws are not guidelines. They are laws. And, we believe firmly that any debt collector who is breaking the law or not following the rules, deserves to be held accountable for their actions." The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says debt collectors cannot ... o Harass or verbally abuse you. o Publish your name if you're past due on a debt. o Falsely claim that they are an attorney or from a government agency. o Reach you at unreasonable times such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you agree. o Contact you at work if they know the employer forbids such communication. o State that legal action will be taken if they don't intend to actually follow through. Even though the law is pretty clear, some debt collectors still flagrantly disregard the law And, they're using Facebook because it adds extra shock value. The more shocking, the more harassing, the more outrageous, the more these debt collectors get paid," said Attorney Billy Howard. "What makes it so dangerous is you can contact somebody's family and friends very quickly and very easily, and you can set off a domino effect of panic that can be devastating." The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a consumer protection law that specifically states what debt collectors can and cannot do to collect a debt and further safeguards consumers from abusive debt collection practices. But, the FDCPA was enacted back in the 1970s when social media, e-mail and text messaging did not exist. The FTC has publicly indicated that the FDCPA needs to be revised and updated to include guidelines for technology that didn't exist 40 years ago.

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