By Nicole Lyn Pesce
Yes, debt collectors can slide into your DMs.
They can also text you, email you and reach out to you on your social media pages — including via direct messages on Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.13% or Instagram, or over Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.45% Messenger — to collect unpaid debts, according to updated rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau .
The change, which brings the decades-old Fair Debt Collection Practices Act up to speed with the digital age, took effect this past Tuesday, Nov. 30. While debt collectors were not previously banned from contacting consumers over text or on social media, per se — since, when the 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was first written, social media and text messaging didn’t exist yet — the revised rules in effect this week are intended to provide “clear rules of the road” in 2021 and beyond, the bureau says.
The first rule, which was first announced last year, clarifies how debt collectors can use email, text messages, social media and other contemporary methods to communicate with consumers. The second clarifies the disclosures that debt collectors must give to consumers when they first make contact.
So with social media, for example, a debt collector can send you a friend or follower request — but they must identify themselves as a debt collector . And in each message, they must also provide a simple way to opt out of receiving further communications from them on the social media platform — although there isn’t a cap for how many messages they can send.
And you shouldn’t have to worry about your debts being broadcast to your friends and family, as debt collectors are not allowed to discuss your debt on your profile page, or in comments to your posts that can be seen by your friends, your followers, your contacts or the public. Any communication about debt must be made by private message — so a debt collector can’t comment under your vacation photos that you owe $2,000 on your credit card. Read more here.
And while collectors can also contact borrowers by email and over text messages, they must still offer the chance to opt out or unsubscribe from receiving those messages, as well.
As for debt collection calls, the new rules restrict how often collectors can ring consumers . The agencies are now limited to seven calls per week per account in collection. And if you have already engaged in a phone conversation with the debt collector, then they are prohibited from calling you about that particular debt again within seven days of your chat.
The revised rules also ban debt collectors from suing or threatening to sue consumers on time-barred debt (aka, a debt that is beyond the statute of limitations.) What’s more, debt collectors need to take specific steps to disclose the existence of a debt to the consumer before reporting information about the debt to a consumer reporting agency. These include speaking to you about the debt, either by phone or in person, or sending an electronic communication (including social media) or snail mail about the debt, and waiting about 14 days for a notice that the message or letter wasn’t delivered. Read more here.
“We are finally leaving 1977 behind and developing a debt collection system that works for consumers and industry in the modern world,” said Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathleen L. Kraninger in a blog post last year .
But consumer advocates have expressed concerns about these digital communication methods for debt collection. The National Consumer Law Center summed up some of its concerns here , such as the fact that collectors can use electronic communications like email to contact consumers without their consent; the onus is on the consumer to opt out of these messages. And requiring an opt-out, rather than requiring the debt collectors to get consumer consent, is more likely to result in missed messages, the NCLC says.
What’s more, a person’s privacy may be violated if the text, email or DM is seen by someone else, including employers. And then there’s the possibility that debt collectors could message the wrong social media account, such as contacting the wrong “John Smith” about an unpaid debt. “There are a lot of people with the same name, and debt collectors may end up sending a direct message to the wrong person,” NCLC staff attorney April Kuehnhoff told MarketWatch. “Then that person is getting private information about someone else, which would be prohibitive disclosure to that third party.”
And it’s concerning the other way around, too. “If you’re the ‘other’ John Smith, maybe you suddenly think you have this debt, and that could create all sorts of concerns for that individual, who may become confused or anxious. So I think there’s a lot of problems,” Kuehnhoff said.
And approving a friend request or follower request from a debt collector could also give that collector access to private information that you share with your friends and family on social media. “The debt collector who becomes part of your social media network may use information about your location and your assets in an attempt to collect a debt,” Kuehnhoff said. “That’s going to be even more of a privacy concern.
“I think it’s a Pandora’s Box that can lead to more harassment, or just allowing [debt collectors] to be more invasive into a person’s life to collect than is perhaps needed,” agreed Christine Hines, legislative director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “There’s the bare minimum here in terms of safeguards,” she told MarketWatch.
What’s more, consumers could easily miss direct messages from debt collectors if they’re not active on those social media accounts, for example, or if their online accounts filter messages from people outside of their friends’ lists into a spam folder. Or they might think this is a scam. “If you’re a debt collector and you’re trying to reach me by sliding into my DMs there is a 0% chance I’m going to believe you’re actually a debt collector,” mused one Twitter user in response to the updated rules.
Indeed, this also opens up a new avenue for potential scammers to prey on consumers. “I’ve already gotten my first scam debt collection email, and that was even before the rule took effect,” said Kuehnhoff. “Electronic communication really lowers the bar in term of making it cheaper and easier for scammers and bad actors to enter this space.”
So some social media users weren’t happy about the news, either. “This is absolutely terrifying,” tweeted one . “Having been on the bad end of debt collections in my life, I can attest to the anxiety around your phone or mailbox, so much that you don’t even answer/check them. This adds new avenues to terrorize people.”
Hines suggests that people become even more cautious about who they let access their social networks. “We know already it’s a jungle out there [on social media], and this is just another factor” that can put their identity and personal information at risk. “This is another place where consumers should be careful of whom they’re communicating with, or who’s communicating with them, and the type of information they share.”
And Kuehnhoff reminder social media users not to click on any hyperlinks or download any attachments from DMs, texts or emails claiming to come from debt collectors. “All of those rules [to avoid scams and identity theft] still apply, even if it’s a debt collector email,” she said.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes that debt collection is a multi-billion dollar industry , with more than 8,000 debt collection firms in the United States.
Household debt in America hit a record $14.6 trillion in the spring of 2021, according to the Federal Reserve. And Americans racked up $17 billion in credit card debt in the third quarter of 2021 .