back to article US government clears debt collectors to go after Americans through their social media accounts

Debt collectors will be allowed to chase people over their social media accounts under new rules approved by the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). That means that your new Facebook friend request could come from an agency hounding you over that unpaid medical bill, next Twitter direct message chasing car payments …

  1. Martin Summers Silver badge

    And what good do they think that will do? They did take into account during their 7 years of deliberations that people can just hit block didn't they? Also, more fool anyone on social media accepting a friend request from someone they don't know.

    1. mark l 2 Silver badge

      It not just accepting friends request from people they don't know, apparently they have to announce themselves as debt collectors before they can message you. So if you are trying to avoid them, you can just not respond to their friends request and they wouldn't be able to message you.

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Meh

        I suspect a lot of people will hit the report spam / harassment button, and they will end up getting banned.

        1. quartzz

          the only way to reliably get banned on Fb (in my exp - I've not regular'd facebook for a couple of years), is to not give your genuine details to data $harvest sell.

          but I guess all it takes is to receive one message from the debt collector with some info, and the DC can officially record that you've seen the information?

          1. Joe W Silver badge

            Exactly (@reasons for getting banned). My experience as well. I tried to join using a soon to be discarded phone number (my phone number is none of their business) and a sortable / blockable email address (yeah, my domain, so I can use one email for each and every company), but opted out of everything data collection related and filled out only the minimum number of fields. Doing nothing for a day resulted in getting banned... oh, sorry, "suspended". Dedicated browser, no app on the phone, no data to harvest (except for the contact graph, which they apparently already have, I did find a number of friends in the suggested friends list).

            Meh, would have been a nice way to stay in touch with some people who are more focused on their FB-Communicator. Now we'll just have to text / email / phone. Meeting in person does not work too well at the moment...

            1. NakedStranger

              Misinformation — that's how I handle the likes of Facebook, Google, Quora, Twitter, etc. My personal information is MY personal information, and is NOT "for sale". Let these miscreant personal data harvesters harvest my fake information all they want … and sell IT to "third parties" … works for me! …

          2. MiguelC Silver badge
            Big Brother

            Just the sort of experience I've had with Instagram. I joined to be able to see some older posts as having no account limits the posts you can see. After a day or so got a message about suspect activity* and that I needed to give proof of not being a bot by giving them my phone number. No more account then, fuck'em!

            * I suspect that the suspect activity was running noscript, ublock origin and cookie autodelete so they couldn't track me - I was, therefore, of no use to them

            1. sev.monster Bronze badge
              Big Brother

              Do note they can still track you.

              • Assuming you've configured your uBlock/NoScript/CAD settings and lists to block as much as possible, they are still able to record IP address, DNS server(s), cache timing, headers (Referer, eTag, browser-specific header maps), packet protocol inspection (every OS/network stack revision has a different and identifiable way of making a connection)...
              • Even with very large/effective rule lists in uBO/NS, you are still open to image, anchor, and script beacons if you haven't enabled the option in uBO.
              • If you have not disable prefetching, it can be abused to refresh cookie lifetime and gather more header information such as your current Referer. Don't know if CAD protects against the first part.
              • If you don't block all scripts and XHR, you are immediately open to the exfiltration of font lists, canvas fingerprinting, the contents of the navigation object (which includes screen resolution, operating system, and other information), mouse activity, etc...
              • Any fingerprinting that fails or is obviously blocked also helps uniquely identify you... After all if everyone else has X cookie and you don't, isn't that suspicious?

              I don't know what of these methods (or more) Facebook/Instagram uses. I am just mentioning that you are probably a lot easier to track than you think. The fact that you are using NoScript, uBlock (origin I hope), and frequently clear your cookies is fingerprintable in itself, and likely singles you out among the masses.

    2. Lee D Silver badge

      It's a small proof that you can't just deny that you were aware of the debt, and it's to make contact.

      UK debt collectors can already do similar - email, Facebook, text, etc. It's to make initial contact with you.

      Hint: If you don't have a debt, or you dispute your debt, that's all you need say. That's it. "I dispute this debt". They don't really have a leg to stand on past that point, because they're not the debtor and hence won't be in full possession of the facts.

      And if it's a court-ordered collection (e.g. a High Court writ, etc. ala "Don't Pay, We'll Take It Away") then they are even allowed to use all those same above means to SERVE that writ if it comes to it (they tend not to, but legally they can use those methods already - yes, you can be served via Facebook, in the UK and the US, but it's seen as a last resort) but once it comes from a court then you really have no choice but to pay anyway. But courts can use the exact same methods.

      This is for the contact, not the enforcement. "We contacted the debtor by email, Facebook, letter and home visit, your Honour, but although we know he received those messages through his interactions with them, we haven't yet seen any approach for payment or dispute".

      If you don't owe the money, dispute it.

      If you owe the money and can afford, pay it.

      If you owe the money and can't afford it, make an offer or go to court to prove that.

      Debt collectors are - in my experience - actually fairly good people. They're not the loan sharks of your imagination. If you owe money, you need to pay it, or you need to prove (to a court-level of proof) that you don't owe it. Interacting with the collectors is literally step one of that, even if it's to say "I dispute this debt".

      I've never had a debt collector call for me. I've had debt collectors call for people who don't live at my address, for people who tried to use my address fraudulently, for people who left the country leaving the debt collectors only vague connections that they can use to try to get hold of them, etc. Each time they've been quite nice about it. You explain, and they go away. But they get in contact by letter, email, etc. first because THAT'S THE POLITE THING TO DO. Given a choice between a pair of brutes in bodyvests knocking on your door at 6am, waking your neighbours, disturbing your wife and kids, trying to gain legal access to the property, refusing to leave and panicking them into paying, wouldn't you rather they sent you a private Facebook message? Well, guess what? This allows the latter to happen first.

      And my ex used to be a barrister, so she was well aware of what they could and could not do, but it still shook her every time they came looking because you then immediately have to be on your guard about things and you can get worried about "what if they come back and find an open window", etc.

      Given that, a "This is to inform you that we have a debt against you. To avoid enforcement action, please get in contact with us on..." in your Facebook messaging is positively a joy in comparison.

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Flame

        Not my experience from having a debt collector try to get payment of an electricity bill for an address I've never lived at.

        6 months of:

        Please provide proof of liability

        You owe it, pay up now

        Eventually I sent a subject access request to the electricity supplier, and at the bit where you would normally provide an account number to help them find the records, I put instead that I had never been a customer.

        Got a response back saying, "we don't have data", and a couple of days later, the debt collector wrote to say they were dropping the case.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Dropping the case doesn't mean it won't show up on your credit report as a bad debt, does it?

          1. katrinab Silver badge
            Meh

            I did check. Also, all my replies mentioned the consequences of reporting a disputed debt.

      2. Allan 1

        I dispute this statement that debt collectors are good people.

        I had a collections agency pursue me for over 3 years over a debt that wasn't mine. It started off with a telephone call asking for a name who has never lived here (I've lived here for 40+ years), then they asked my name "for our records to show who we spoke to", that sounded reasonable, so I gave it.

        All of a sudden they were pursuing the same debt, but with my name instead. It took a year of lawyers letters being exchanged before they admitted they were pursuing the wrong person, and dropped it.

  2. cornetman Silver badge

    Seems a bit counterproductive to me though.

    We are being trained to ignore much of this kind of thing since it is currently entirely SPAM or phishing of one form or another.

  3. HildyJ Silver badge
    Facepalm

    How low can you go

    Under the current Administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has gone from a bureau to protect consumers from financial companies to a bureau that protects financial companies from consumers. One can only hope that this can be changed back.

    1. skithetrees

      Re: How low can you go

      https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/consumer-bureau-vet-who-battled-trump-will-lead-biden-plans-to-overhaul-agency/ar-BB1aTatD

      Got a lot of housecleaning to do. Under the current US administration there is no bottom to the low.

      1. Barking mad

        Re: How low can you go

        "Got a lot of housecleaning to do" is a an understatement.

        It's going to be like turning a badly managed pig farm into a residence with just a shovel and broom.

    2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: How low can you go

      Agency capture by the regulated industry is quite common for regulatory agencies. To often the agencies are dominated by the major players in the industries they are supposedly regulating. For a historical example look at the British Board of Trade lifeboat regulations circa 1910; not that anyone else was any better. This is very serious with any administrative, agency by the major players in the industry.

      Sooner or later the CFPB was going to be captured by the industries it was supposed to regulate.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: How low can you go

        I've never seen a reason for the regulated to be represented on a regulatory committee. That guarantees capture. By all means consult with the regulated, but no one currently or recently employed by them should be a member of the regulator.

        1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

          Re: How low can you go

          But you then have to vet all current and future employees for those that have [cough] agreed [cough] to see the industries point of view for the next 2-4 years before getting an easy, well paid position at one of the industry companies.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: How low can you go

          On the other hand, for a regulator to be able to it's job of regulating, they need people with long term and/or recent experience in said industry. Otherwise there's the risk of smart talking lawyers and/or experts bamboozling the regulator. And those experienced people working for the regulator might not want to damage their future career prospects if the choose to go back into the industry.

          The best bet is get people running the regulator who are about to retire or semi-retired and are not going back after their stint at the regulator.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "can contact consumers by phone up to seven times a week"*

    I think that would been seen as harassment from a legal point of view here in the UK.

    * Which could result in contact every day for the rest of your life.

    1. Psmo Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: "can contact consumers by phone up to seven times a week"*

      Yes, but its worse in the US- there are stories of people being called every hour.

  5. Tim99 Silver badge
    Trollface

    So

    It looks like Donald might soon be using Twitter for the last time then?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But why

    Would anyone allow themselves to be identified via social media?

    Why?

    1. quartzz

      Re: But why

      if you think you might still have a chance of getting laid from there? (and you don't know they're wo_otching)

  7. Number6

    I wonder what happens if they pick the wrong person? I know other people with the same name as me, so if one of them defaults on a debt, am I going to get bugged by debt collectors because it's easy for them to do on social media?At least if they're required to keep it private it saves them from defamation lawsuits from those they've wrongly accused.

    1. Swiss Anton

      Brazil, (the film, not the country).

  8. chivo243 Silver badge
    Go

    Win Win

    El Reg and another tech page are as close Social as I get. I don't have any debts, but still the vector for being tracked isn't there...

  9. Torchy

    Wrong Person.

    As I live in the UK, (I have no debt), if I was wrongly fingered for someone elses debt via social media I would take legal action via my trade union.

    What is legal in the US does not mean that it is legal elsewhere in the world so how are the bailiffs going to work out what country the contact lives in?

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Wrong Person.

      As I live in the UK and used to be married to a barrister:

      Your legal action would fall flat on its face almost immediately. This is a perfectly valid debt collection tactic in many countries, including the UK.

      Just because they got the wrong person doesn't give you a legal right to any kind of legal action. You say "This isn't me", or "This isn't my debt" or "They've never lived here". Which involves interacting with the collectors.

      They can still serve a debt or court order via Facebook, email or carrier pigeon if they want. Pretty much anything. They tend not to, but both UK and US courts can and have literally served people where they have no other guaranteed way of contacting the person, and for things way more important than a debt.

      They don't need to know what country the contact lives in... the debt is still owed in the original jurisdiction and they are allowed to chase - but not necessarily enforce - it wherever the debtor happens to be. It's a debt against YOU. No different to you owing US taxes... they'll chase you even if you live in Azerbaijan.

      P.S. this is 100% legal in the UK too. And chasing you on Facebook is 100% legal too, even if it wasn't legal in the UK - because their US law gives them the right to do it, and they are immune from your imaginary UK law banning UK debt collectors from doing that.

      So... please... for the love of all that is sacred.... never argue with a debt collector without taking legal advice. Because you have absolutely no understanding of the process or law. If a debt collector approaches you, you either dispute the debt, or you pay it. Anything else requires legal advice, which if you have debt collectors after you you almost certainly cannot afford.

      You would not, in any way, be able to take legal action against a debt collector pursuing a legitimate debt, even if they got the wrong person. You'd be asked "Did you inform them?" and you'd have to prove persistent and harmful harassment beyond that, and that would be in the jurisdiction of their enforcement.

      P.S. Was married to a barrister, was subject to international debt collection for a relative who didn't live with us, including US speeding tickets, US-debt, and UK-debt chasing the guy who'd moved to the US. Oh, and once had a "friend" use our address without consent. You still have to handle it properly, but you have basically zero legal right to do anything in retaliation for their legal debt-collection practices, and your trade union won't give a damn.

      Now, harassing you needlessly through Facebook might be something that a UK company could get in trouble for as our laws would prevent that... but repeated contact is not harassment. And it's a damn sight less harassing than two big blokes knocking on your door at 6am waking the neighbours and kids. That's why the UK debt collectors ALREADY have the power to do stuff like this. But they tend to prefer to send an email or letter first.

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Megaphone

        Re: Wrong Person.

        "Anything else requires legal advice, which if you have debt collectors after you you almost certainly cannot afford."

        Remember that the debt collector is not going to spend more in legal fees than they can recover in court, unless it is government debt. If it is for example a £200 debt, that isn't going to pay for much lawyer time, so you can easily blow their budget.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Wrong Person.

          Your original debt might be £200 but the debt collectors will add their own fees. That could include the court costs. They will likely still make their profit while you might end up paying a LOT more than the original debt. You only go to court if you are sure and can prove you are not the debtor, or you can prove you can't afford to repay in full and are willing to accept a court mandated payment plan.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wrong Person.

        "repeated contact is not harassment"

        It depends on the frequency of contact - the FCA's Consumer Credit sourcebook states the contacting a debtor too freqeuntly, or at unreasonable times, by a debt collector /is/ harassment (7.3.10), although that's to cover off "multiple contacts per day" (rather than "once per fortnight").

        (I won't mention Fergusson vs British Gas, although BG did royally screw-up on that one, as there was no actual debt ...)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      My perspective on any US entity is that it thinks/acts as if US law = Global law.

  10. codejunky Silver badge

    Hmm

    I did wonder if this would lead to harassment but seeing the protections in place (as well as the easy block features of the platforms) it doesnt seem to really matter.

  11. Richard Jones 1
    WTF?

    Tell Errant Debt Collectors Where to Go in a Business Like Way

    Ten years ago my daughter moved into a house that had been repossessed, no surprise mail for the old owner turned up and was politely marked return to sender, for about a year to 18 months this farce continued. The problem is that returned mail discards the envelope without reading the reasons. We then damaged the window and either wrote on the contents or inserted new material saying that they had gone away. We returned the tampered but otherwise 'unopened' mail to sender and eventually after a more few phone calls all settle down. I think my daughter found the new address for the defaulter and passed that on to one of the banks when they called. She explained the easy research she had done and provided a few suggestions as to how they could improve their working methods, since junk mail was treated as junk by all parties.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. Big_Boomer Silver badge

    Crunched

    After getting Credit Crunched in 2009, I ended up with quite a lot of debt and no income. A couple of the debt collectors were polite, understanding and helpful. Even though I acknowledged all of the debts and was making payments of £1 per month each, one particular agency still felt that they had to call me several times per day and on a couple of instances their agents threatened me. So, I called Citizens Advice. They told me to write to the original debtor explaining what I was experiencing. Next thing I know, the debt agency writes to me apologising, claiming it was a fault in their auto dialler system (yeah, right!), and agreeing to ONLY contact me by letter. The original debtor also wrote to me to apologise for the treatment. Since then I have settled every debt and will never get in debt again. I'd rather do without stuff than experience that again. Yes, you can have stuff today and pay tomorrow, but sooner or later you will over-extend (or your circumstances will change and over-extend you) and then you too will get to experience the joys of being "pressured" by debt collectors.

    If you choose not to acknowledge your debt, then they will come after you by any means available. They'd rather not send someone to your door as that costs them money, so contacting you via social media seems like a reasonable alternative since that is a public aspect of you.

  13. Mystic Megabyte
    FAIL

    long story cut short

    I owed a government agency about $80, I did not pay. The agency then sell that debt to bailiffs for, say, $40. All good so far! The agency got some cash and the bailiffs are hoping to double their investment, plus a few extra charges on top. It pans out like this:

    Receive a threatening letter from the bailiffs, bin it.

    Receive another threatening letter from the bailiffs, bin it.

    Receive a polite letter from a different company offering "arbitration". Bin it!

    The bailiffs then sell that debt to another bunch of (more desperate) bailiffs for, say, $20. It pans out like this:

    Receive a threatening letter from the bailiffs, bin it.

    Receive another threatening letter from the bailiffs, bin it.

    Receive a polite letter from a different company offering "arbitration". Bin it!

    This works because I live in a remote area and my ancient car is worth about $300. The cost of sending someone here to clamp my car would far greater than the $80 that they might recover. I also don't do any "social media". So basically they can just feck off. BTW, it may be old but my car starts every time, I look after it.

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