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Debt collectors have been known to use all manner of tricks to get a hold of the debtors they are after and make them pay up. Now, they have a new tool in their box. Like the police and nearly everyone else in the world, debt collectors have discovered Facebook. If you owe money, be careful who you friend.
A report by National Public Radio on July 12 chronicled the story of one man on the run from the collection agencies. Owing more than $15,000 in student loans, among other debts, Isaac Vicknair had managed to elude his debtors for years by moving and passing from job to job; until he "set his own trap." Asked by his boss to use Facebook for work related social networking, he placed his contact information online where anyone could see it. And anyone did.
According to NPR, a representative from the Financial Management Service, a bureau of the Treasury Department that is responsible for collecting money owed to the government, reached out to touch Vicknair regarding his outstanding student loans. They threatened to garnish his wages if he did not set up a payment plan.
The cautionary tale of Isaac Vicknair brings up questions of what debt collectors can and cannot do in the name of collection. Gary Nitzkin, a credit collection attorney, tells NPR his collection agents will use social networking sites (not just Facebook but LinkedIn and MySpace) to garner information such as what kind of new assets a 'friend' might have -- new car, new boat. Then they know it is worth going after the debtor.
A response from the FTC to NPR's story outlines some of the restrictions placed on debt collectors by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, or FDCPA. Although written in the dark ages (1978) before social media existed, the limits on collector's actions may still cross over. According to an email sent by the FTC, the law requires, "that collectors must disclose that they are attempting to collect on a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose. It also requires that collectors state in subsequent communications with the debtor that they are a debt collector."
This statement would seem to require that a new friend actually seeking to repossess your car tell you so, but attorney Nitzkin still argues social media is a "grey area" of the law for now. So, until the law becomes clarified, and for common sense sake, use care in picking your friends.