Can Debt Ridden Social Media Users Now Breathe Easy?

By Katie Kindelan Comment

If you heard a collective sigh of relief on Facebook today, it was probably the big spenders on your ‘Friends’ list just reading the news of a ground-breaking ruling in Florida that means debt collectors will have to go back to collecting their money the old-fashioned way, off of social media.

In a groundbreaking case closely watched by social media users, credit firms and the debt-ridden alike, a Florida judge has ruled that a debt collector can’t continue to contact a debtor’s friends and family on Facebook, or any other social networking site, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

The case dates to last year when agents from debt collection agency MarkOne Financial in Jacksonville, Fla., allegedly began e-mailing, texting and calling Florida resident Melanie Beacham to reclaim the $362 she owed in car payments.

They not only contacted Beacham up to ten times a day – and as many as 23 times in one day she charged – but they also messaged her and her relatives on Facebook, which sparked a lawsuit from Beacham in August claiming that MarkOne “intentionally harassed and abused the Plaintiff in outrageous format.”

And so began the debate:  How do debt collectors communicate with a generation that makes social plans only on Facebook, tracks the location of their “friends” on Foursquare and tweets their every thought on Twitter?

Not in any of those ways, ruled the Florida court.

Less clear though is what the future will hold as the law regulating debt collection practices, “The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1978,” does not specify the use of social media.

Beacham’s lawyer, Billy Howard of Morgan & Morgan, called the ruling “groundbreaking” and told the Sentinel his firm is investigating “about 10 other cases” of debt collectors using social media to contact debtors.

A representative for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals told the Sentinel that debt collectors can “use social media the same way they use a phone book to locate someone or gather information on an individual,” and said of the Fair Practices law, “”it’s the best it can be today for a law that was written in 1978. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit.”

MarkOne did not respond to the Sentinel’s request for a comment on the ruling.

Last year, however, the agency told the Atlantic magazine that “MarkOne’s policy is to only use Facebook to locate customers when the customer has a fully public profile, and when the customer has not responded to MarkOne through conventional means. Our policy is to respect privacy disclosure requirements and no negative or account information is shared with third parties.”

So, for now, if you owe someone money, or even if you don’t owe anyone anything, perhaps it is best to make your Facebook profile private.