Careful – that Facebook friend request could be an invasive debt collector

Logging into Facebook and discovering a friend request is normally a little exciting. Maybe it’s that funny girl from improv class, or the outlandishly charming barista/actor you met last week — whoever it is, someone wants to get to know you better. 

Sometimes these requests are from strangers, from people you’ve never heard of before. Since scammers and spammers use fake profiles to hunt for personal information on social media, it’s generally best to approach friend requests from strangers with caution. But sometimes you have a moment of weakness. “Maybe I did meet this person and I just forgot,” you think. “Anyways, they look really nice.” Friend added … and, perhaps, credit score decimated. 

The stranger-friendship you’re accepting could be worse than a lonely person trying to creep on you. It could be a debt collector, using Facebook to hunt you down and harangue you about outstanding bills. One woman in St. Petersburg, Florida, Melanie Beacham, had a $362 unpaid car loan — and a collection agency called Mark-One Financial told her family and friends all about it. Beacham alleged that Mark-One Financial reached out not just to her but to numerous friends and family on Facebook, both embarrassing her and violating her privacy. Beacham sued the agency and a judge ruled in her favor, prohibiting the debt collectors from using Facebook to contact consumers. But Beacham’s not the only person who has dealt with a debt collector on social media. 

Some debt collectors entice Facebook users to accept their friendship by making their profile pictures an attractive, bikini-clad woman — a “honeytrap.” According to a report by Bloomberg, bikini-clad profiles are just one method — other people have reported messages from debtors in their Facebook inboxes.

Facebook isn’t a fan of debt collectors trawling the site and harassing users, and the social network has issued warnings to debt collectors in the past about using the service to get to consumers. In 2010, following Beacham’s lawsuit, Facebook gave a statement noting that the debt collector had likely violated FTC regulations, and urged users to report likeminded collectors. But despite Facebook’s pushback, collection tactics using social media have persisted. 

This behavior is gaining attention from regulators, and may end up getting curtailed. 

In January, the  Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council issued a proposed guidance document urging debt collectors to stop using social media to “inappropriately contact consumers, or their family and friends.” But this proposal hasn’t enforced any changes, and debt collectors continue to use social media as a tool to contact consumers. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is investigating how debt collectors use the Internet and social media to make contact and keep tabs on their targets, and whether these practices violate privacy laws and amount to harassment. The CFPB gained more authority over debt collectors after the Dodd-Frank Act passed in 2010 and created the Bureau with an aim to protect consumers.

And the CFPB has plenty to regulate. Laws limiting collection techniques haven’t changed for decades, but opportunities for communication have changed dramatically. 

Some debt collectors use sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to accumulate information about consumers, and if this information is posted publicly, it’s fair game. Preston Cochrane, of the Utah AAA Fair Credit Foundation, explained how collectors use social media to nail consumers. “”If you owe a debt and you told the debt collector you don’t have any money but five minutes later post pictures of you out shopping, or of you on the beach of your vacation and they see that, they’ve caught you red-handed. They caught you in a lie,” he told KSL. He noted that posting on someone’s Facebook wall about their outstanding debts was out-of-bounds — but that guiding principle isn’t widely understood by other debt collectors. 

The CFPB issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking earlier this month, pointing out how the current language was written before mainstream Internet use and doesn’t address how collectors can digitally track and interact with consumers.”Now it is time to look closely at how we can improve and modernize existing measures that were written before the Internet, before social media, and before many other new communication technologies,” CFPB director Rob Cordray remarked in a statement. This notice indicates that the CFPB is beginning the process of changing the rules, and it’s taking the social web into consideration. 

Updating the legal framework to protect today’s consumers and to allow fair and appropriate use of modern technology is a high priority for the Consumer Bureau, which motivates this Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. 

It’s likely that updated guidelines will set limits on how debt collectors use social media — but we don’t yet know how far these guidelines will go. Since many collection agencies use social media to simply collect information on consumers without directly contacting them, those practices that focus on gleaning knowledge about finances from publicly published information will likely still be allowed — and it should be. Things will get trickier when it comes to friend requests from debt collectors, especially those who use attractive avatars to up their chances of an accepted friend request. The language guiding debt collectors should make it clear that stealth methods like posing as someone to convince consumers to accept Facebook friend requests should not be allowed. 

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