5 ways to avoid debt collectors on Facebook and Twitter

OPINION - Is the latest person following you on Twitter or friending you on Facebook actually a debt collector in disguise? ...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Is the latest person following you on Twitter or friending you on Facebook actually a debt collector in disguise?

That could very well be the case if you’re behind on your bills.

As debt collectors step up their efforts to collect money, the social media landscape is becoming the latest battleground in the war between cash-strapped consumers and persistent creditors.

At issue are several murky legal questions, such as: When is it acceptable for debt collectors to track someone down or contact him or her through social networking sites, including Facebook or MySpace? And how much information, if any, can a debt collector reveal about a debtor to that person’s online friends and social networking acquaintances?

Some debt collectors have reportedly harassed people on Facebook, trying to get them to pay debts that were supposedly owed. Other creditors and third-party debt collectors have allegedly contacted consumers’ friends and family members online in an attempt to embarrass the debtors. All these actions are illegal and prohibited by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.

“They’re using Facebook because it adds that extra shock value. The more shocking, the more harassing, the more outrageous, the more these debt collectors get paid,” Florida attorney Bill Howard recently told MSNBC.com.

“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,” says Howard, who is head of the consumer protection division at the law firm of Morgan & Morgan.

What is legal, however, is for a debt collector to use information gleaned from social networking sites in order to reach you for the purposes of collecting a debt. This doesn’t mean the debt collector can misrepresent himself or pose as a friend in order to connect with you online at Facebook or other sites. That’s in violation of federal law.

But it is perfectly acceptable, legal experts say, for debt collectors to use social media platforms to locate you, as long as they adhere to the FDCPA.

What about writing on someone’s Facebook wall — where others could see the message? Experts say that would be deemed inappropriate and illegal. But how about sending you a direct message on Facebook or Twitter? That may be within the law.

Because these issues aren’t always so cut-and-dried, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in late April 2011 held a panel on the topic. The FTC panel, called “Debt Collection 2.0: Protecting Consumers as Technologies Change,” was designed to examine the practices of debt collectors in a modern era of social networking.

FTC officials haven’t yet issued any definitive guidance on the matter, beyond asserting that debt collectors are required to adhere to the FDCPA both online and offline.

Still, at the very least, debt collectors’ stepped up use of social media is raising new questions about what’s legal and what’s not. It’s also becoming a thorny area for consumers to navigate, especially since 61percent of all Americans over the age of 12 — including a huge percentage of Blacks in the U.S – use social networking sites. African-Americans represent more than 25% of all users on Twitter alone.Ultimately, it will be up to federal and state authorities to determine when debt collectors go too far using social media.

Until then, here are five steps you can take to protect yourself from overzealous debt collectors – including those who contact you or your friends and family online.

1. Don’t ‘Bling, Bling’ If You Claim to Be Broke
So you just posted Internet photos of your recent trip to Aruba, or pictures of yourself looking sharp in a nice new suit, huh? Such information suggests to debt collectors that you’re living large, and it makes it far less likely that they’ll believe your claims of being broke.

Even worse, the information you share publicly online may be used as ammunition against you, if things really get nasty and you wind up in court over a debt. (If you do get a notice to appear in court, read these tips on how to handle debt collectors, including why you should always answer a court summons).

2. Stop Revealing TMI — About You and Family
We’ve all been guilty of sharing too much information from time to time. But when you do it online, and debt collectors are trying to find you, it’s like you’ve left them a trail of breadcrumbs leading right to your door.

While ducking your creditors isn’t a solution to your financial mess, if you’re not ready to pay what you owe or negotiate a payment plan, it’s sometimes best to lay low. You can’t do that, though, if you’re constantly broadcasting your whereabouts on Foursquare or telling the world (via your online posts) about the date, time and exact hotel location of your upcoming family reunion in Virginia Beach.

3. Know Your Rights
Bill collectors are not permitted to harass, threaten, intimidate or try to embarrass you into paying a debt. If they do any of these things, they are violating the FDCPA. Read up on your consumer rights and the 10 areas of protection you have under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

4. Complain About Abusive Practices
If a debt collector harasses you, threatens you or otherwise breaks the FDCPA or your state laws, don’t hesitate to report them to authorities immediately. File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and with the FTC.

5. Get Help With Debt Relief
Finally, if you find yourself constantly struggling with bills, make a plan to become debt free so you can be rid of aggressive debt collectors once and for all. Follow these tips to get out of debt, or seek guidance from the Better Business Bureau’s free online program