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Bill collectors hunting debtors down on social media


The days of debt collectors persistently calling your phone nagging about unpaid fees may be over. With landline phones being a thing of the past and social media and texting being the newest ways to communicate, debt collectors are using alternative means to contact you, your friends and your family, even if those means are unlawful.

Lindsey Ellis took out a loan with TitleMax in April 2014 to help her pay $2,500 for a new transmission. TitleMax, a private lending company allowing those who have trouble accessing consumer credit to borrow against the value of their vehicle, contacted Ellis’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend and her brother-in-law via Facebook, FastCompany reported.

The message, coming from TitleMax employee Erika Edington Brinkley, began with a friendly “Hey Girl,” and continued with “I’m looking for her ve[icle]. She’s been hiding it for some months, never paid on it.”

According to Ellis, she had only been two weeks late on her payment, but besides the company’s false information, she was livid that TitleMax had discussed her personal business to people on her Facebook page.

“I said, ‘This is bull crap for her to breach my privacy like that,’” she recalled.

When she told TitleMax management what had occurred, a company representative said that Brinkley has breached company policy. Although they did not disclose their social media guidelines with FastCompany, the website did discover that Brinkley was still employed with the lending business.

There are rules for debt collectors to abide by, such as those outlined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).  The issue nowadays is that those guidelines do not address social media specifically.

“The conflict between the existing laws and the current technology has really made our job unclear,” said Ron Brown, president and CEO of Collection Service International Group, a third-party collection agency.

The FTC, which was first established in 1914, now mentions that using text messages to collect debts is prohibited, but says nothing of social media. The guidelines also say that contacting relatives and acquaintances is prohibited. The guidelines of the FDCPA, established in 1977, are broad enough to prohibit all forms of harassment, whether via social media or by phone.

“The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the bible we have to live by as collectors,” said Brown. He explained that the act says collectors “can’t do anything that’s considered harassing. That’s a very big umbrella. They make that broad, so if there’s some kind of new social media or new vehicle to contact somebody, consumers still have that protection.”

In a case similar to Ellis’s, a Florida woman had sued MarkOne Financial LLC. for contacting her friends and relatives on Facebook about her $362 debt. A Florida judge ruled that the collection agency could not contact the woman, nor her family and friends via social media.

The woman’s lawyer, Billy Howard, said that social media harassment happens quite often, but victims are paid to keep quiet about it.

“Debt collectors are so scared that their tactics will get out that they pay big bucks to silence people,” said Howard.

Ellis also hired an attorney to settle her dispute with TitleMax, but in the end, she decided to negotiate with the company herself. They offered to waive her loan interest, which she said was “about $150 or 200.”

“They only gave me only 24 hours to make a decision, or they told me they were going to repo my vehicle,” said Ellis.

Although harassment and contacting a debtor’s loved ones is prohibited, that does not mean that some collectors won’t use those options. It also means that even following the rules, debt collectors can use social media to pry into the lives of debtors to get the information they need to track anyone down.

“The other day I was trying to figure out where this woman works. And on her wall, her friend wrote, ‘See you at work on Monday.'” The woman in question had the location of her workplace set to private, but her friend did not. “Now I know where she works,” said Brown.





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