Debt collectors turn to social media

By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After more than a decade of eluding phone calls, a Pennsylvania man said his experience with a third-party collection agency hired to recoup his student loan debt went from marginally annoying to borderline cyber stalking.

The man asked to keep his identify secret because his student loan debt has ballooned from around $80,000 in 1998 to more than $270,000 following years without payment. In 2012, he hired an attorney and accountant to set up a payment plan. He believed the worst was over.

That is, until a picture taken in May at a restaurant with PBS personality Rick Sebak was posted to Facebook and shared more than 50 times within a friends list of more than 5,000 people.

Within days, a person who said he was looking for the man contacted the restaurant and left a phone number that traced back to a collection agency.

Even for loan scofflaws, there are rules collection agencies must follow, and government agencies are working to make that better known.

Clarifying that laws outlined in the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act of 1977 also apply to collection attempts made through digital media has been a priority for the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, said Christopher Koegel, assistant director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection’s financial practices division.

For example, full and honest disclosure of identity and the intent to collect a debt is mandatory for collection agencies.

It also prohibits contacting third parties without prior consent from the debtor or a court unless they’re seeking location information for the debtor. The act bans disclosing debt obligations to third parties; contacting debtors after 8 p.m. and before 9 a.m.; directly contacting consumers who have attorneys handling the debt; making any false or misleading statements; using obscene or profane language; and using threats of violence to collect.