You can now add debt collectors to the list of unwanted contacts (right alongside that ex that just won’t go away) that can reach you via social media, email, and text — and you have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to thank.
Under new rules which went into effect in late November, collection agencies can now send debtors emails, texts, and direct messages on social media. That means in addition to getting inundated with ads you don’t want for that “one weird trick” and friend requests from people who are just dying to tell you about their latest and greatest pyramid scheme, collection agencies can also now slide into your DMs.
The changes to the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act were approved last year by then CFPB president Kathleen Kraninger who said debt collectors were using outdated methods to reach consumers. Methods that haven’t changed since 1977. By adding email, text, and DM to the mix, the CFPB is hoping to streamline the process for everyone involved. “CFPB research very clearly showed that consumers prefer to be communicated with via modern methods, social media private messaging is one of those modern ways that consumers can receive information,” says Leah Dempsey, senior counsel at ACA International, the debt collection industry trade group. “Consumers have the best outcomes when they know their options and can make informed choices for resolving their legal obligations.”
That may not ring true with the countless people who are contacted by debt collectors each year. Many feel harassed by the barrage of calls. As of the third quarter, TransUnion, the credit rating agency, found 77.6 million consumers had at least one debt in collection. That’s down from 2020, but the industry is bracing for more collections activity next year. Wells Fargo said as much, warning that it’s seeing an increase in customer defaults from record lows during the pandemic.
“It’s a real change for consumers and debt collectors. It allows them (debt collectors) a lot of different ways to try and get in touch with people,” says Mary McCune, Consumer Law Specialist and Staff Attorney at Legal Services NYC. “Many consumers already feel harassed by just phone calls. This opens the door for more communications.”
SAFEGUARDS IN PLACE
There are rules on the books to prevent debt collectors from contacting you excessively or outing you on social media. Debt collectors can only contact you privately on social media; they have to identify themselves when friend-requesting you, and they must provide a simple way for you to stop receiving messages. Consumers can opt-out of that form of communication by saying stop in a text or an email message or calling the debt collector, says April Kuehnhoff, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “Most debt collectors who are legitimate should respond to a stop message,” she says.
Still, consumer advocates say the rules are lax enough they can be abused by less scrupulous debt collectors. Then there’s us, social media users, who may not pay too much attention to who is seeking a connection. Before we know it, a debt collector could be a new follower or “friend.” Or worse, says McCune… a collection agency could contact the wrong person and disclose a personal debt to a stranger.
MORE ONLINE FRAUD?
Consumer advocates also fear the new rules could fuel an uptick in online fraud. Now that debt collectors can contact you through email, text, and DM, so can scammers pretending to be collection agencies. Their aim would be to trick you into providing personal information or infecting your computer. They now have a new way in, and the burden of figuring out if a debt collector is legit falls on the consumer.
To stay safe, Kuehnhoff says avoid clicking on any link or opening any attachment sent from an unknown party. If the email or text contains threats if you don’t pay the money immediately, alarm bells should go off. “If someone you never heard of is suddenly communicating with you, you want to make sure you do your due diligence,” says Kuehnhoff. “Don’t click on a link or provide personal information. Do more research.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF
If you feel harassed by a collection agency, there are steps you can take to fight back. Start with opting out by emailing, texting, or calling the agency. By law, they have to stop contacting you in that manner once you tell them to. Avoid clicking on any opt-out link. It’s better to reach out directly to ensure it’s not a fake.
Collection agencies can only contact you seven times per week, per debt, and can only speak to you once a week. If you feel the calls are coming in more often, or at all hours of the day and night, keep a log and report the abuse to the CFPB.
“Consumers have the right to emphasize their preference in regard to communications,” says Kuehnhoff. “If consumers say don’t call me or email me and the debt collectors still contact them in that way, they may have a legal claim under the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act. There are attorneys all over the country that will bring claims for them.”
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