A new trend in lawyer Continuing Legal Education are seminars advocating use of Social Media to Collect Debts. The seminars either advocate for social media as the tool of the future or caution that it is an ethical trap for debt collectors.
It’s a hot issue in debt collection. NPR did a story on this last year, and the Federal Trade Commission recently conducted a “Debt Collection 2.0” workshop on the issue. Frankly, it’s such a new issue that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) doesn’t exactly fit, but it’s close.
It’s definitely a trap for the debt collector, especially given that the FDCPA seems to apply to all communications, regardless of whether it’s a letter, e-mail, or friend request. Does a creditor have to identify themselves as a debt collector under the Act in an initial friend request? Does the friend request (i.e. an “initial communication”) have to be followed by the Act’s required debt validation warning (15 USC 1692g)?
I have no idea. My philosophy is, when in doubt about ethics, choose the safe route. Here, the safe route is avoiding affirmative contact but, if the profile is public, then by all means use whatever you can publicly find.
Just yesterday, I was trying to locate a defendant who had disappeared–all of the searches kept going back to his old house, where the residents swore he no longer lived. But, I found an online profile for him on Map My Walk, a site that allows people to track their running and walking routes. You can guess the rest: everyday, his walks started and ended at the address that I had, providing confirmation of his address (and what time he was home in the afternoon).
At one time, I saw social media as the future of debt collection, especially in the early days of social networking sites (Myspace, Friendster, early Facebook), when people didn’t think twice about privacy settings. Now, people are more savvy about online privacy. (And it’s not necessarily to dodge debt collections–it’s more likely to avoid the boss seeing your party photos.)
Even though people can post pictures of their new car or brag about their promotion at work, most people know better. But, not everybody knows better–and, if they are going to put it online where anybody can see, they can’t complain when a debt collector finds it.
My final take? It’s not the wave of the future in collections. It’s a box to check in the process, but not the solution to finding debtors or their assets.