Facebook Warns Debt Collectors About Using Its Service

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A Florida debt collector contacted a St. Petersburg woman's Facebook friends in an effort to get her to repay a $362 car loan. The woman, Melanie Beacham, promptly hit the collector, MarkOne Financial, with a civil suit in Pinellas County circuit court.

Though the suit was first filed in August, Beacham's attorney amended it recently, and the story broke nationally yesterday. According to the filing, a MarkOne employee going by the name Jeff Happenstance contacted both Beacham and two of her friends. As you can see in the message above, Happenstance asked the friends to have Beacham contact him without making reference to her debt.

While you may never thought of it this way, Facebook is a perfect tool for tracking down debtors and the people they know. LinkedIn and Twitter are, too.

"Now Facebook does a debt collectors work for them," Beacham's attorney, Billy Howard, who specializes in debt collection harassment, told a Tampa TV station. "Now it's not only family members, it's all of your associates. It's a very powerful tool for debt collectors to use."

Debt collectors have long contacted family members and friends of debtors in attempts to locate them -- and that behavior is protected by law. "Other than to obtain this location information about you, a debt collector generally is not permitted to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney," a Federal Trade Commission FAQ explains.

MarkOne admitted in a statement that it emailed to The Atlantic that it does use Facebook to track people down:

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.

While this policy strikes me as fairly reasonable, we shouldn't miss the larger point: a debt collection firm has a policy on how to use Facebook to track people down. This is yet another indication that our online lives are tethered to our offline lives, and not just in the fun ways.

Facebook does not look kindly on debt collectors using their social graph to get people to settle up. Facebook told The Atlantic today that debt collectors using their service may be violating their rules. A spokesperson for the company emailed us the following unusually strong (and speculative) statement to us:

There are state and federal laws and FTC regulations that govern the actions of debt collectors. The collector in the St. Petersburg case likely violates a number of these laws and regulations and we encourage the victim to contact the FTC and her state Attorney General. In addition, Facebook policies prohibit any kind of threatening, intimidating, or hateful contact from one user to another. We encourage people to report such behavior to us, only accept friend requests from people that they know, and use privacy settings and our blocking feature to prevent unwanted contact.

Facebook is clearly signaling that they are taking this novel debt-collecting methodology seriously. And so am I. I seriously doubt that MarkOne is alone in making use of social media to attempt to settle debts. If you've been contacted by debt collection agency on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network, I'd love to hear your story. You can contact me discreetly at amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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