A lawsuit filed in Pinelas Circuit Court claims that Jacksonville, Fla.-based MarkOne Financial representatives emailed, texted, and called the residence, cell phone and workplace of Melanie Beacham nearly 23 times a day, looking to collect a debt after the St. Petersburg woman fell behind in her car payments. Unable to contact her, the collection firm thus jumped on Facebook and messaged Beacham and everyone else on her Friends list.
Although the suit is still pending in court, the judge has ruled that MarkOne is no longer allowed to contact Beacham, her family or friends on Facebook or any other social networking site. The ruling is the first of its kind, and overall addresses the rising problem of debt collectors using social media to harass/embarrass debtors into coughing up what they owe.
"That is something we've been fighting for, and we finally got a court ruling on that," said Beacham's attorney Billy Howard, head of the consumer protection department at the Morgan & Morgan law firm. Howard is also representing another client who claims that MarkOne continuously sent messages through Facebook even though the collection firm already contacted his client several times by phone. He also has ten additional cases involving debt collectors using social media to extract a payment.
"This is a new age of harassment," Howard said. "A couple of key strokes you can use one of the oldest debt collectors' tricks there is … that is, to contact family members and friends. Most harassment is one-on-one, but when you bring in family members and friends that's when you really turn up the psychological pressure on people."
MarkOne claims that its 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," the company stated in an email.
Mark Schiffman, public affairs director for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, said collectors can use Facebook as they would the phone book-- to locate someone or gather information on an individual. But that's the extent they're allowed to use social media-- they can't post to walls, send messages, or contact third parties to provoke the debtor into calling. Unfortunately, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, enacted in 1978, does not specify the use of social media.
But that may change based on the new ruling. "It's dangerous ground because it's new ground," Schiffman said. "Like anything, case law gets built because of challenges to how people are using something."