Caught In The Web : Debt Collectors Find Fleeting Debtors Via Social Networking Websites

I feel the personal need to thank a one, Vanessa Romo, a reporter at NPR for her most recent and compelling article “Elusive Debtors Foiled By Their Social Media Sites“.

This article delved into a world I had never considered existed. No not Pandora, but a realm of debt collectors using social media and networking sits to collect debts owed.

A social network can be a great tool for you to connect with friends but likewise if you publicize your profile it is a tremendous apparatus for debt collectors looking to collect on delinquent debts you may be avoiding.

Facebook. Myspace. LinkedIn. Twitter.

To name a few of the increasingly popular and well known social networking sites out on the internet today. Sites where you can join networks, and create a profile in order to catch up with friends, get connected with colleagues or where you can simply practice the art of being shamelessly self involved. Whichever way you look at it, these types of sites are growing by the hundreds of thousands sometimes millions of users each month.

Granted the Facebook craze appears to be starting to die off, at least here in the States; the actual growth of the site slowed in June 2010, dropping to 320,800 new monthly uses verses the 7.8 million users from May. Source.

Perhaps the diminish in new Facebook members might not be such a bad thing, especially if you’re a debtor on the run from your monetary obligations.

Romo reported yesterday about debtor, Issac Vicknair, who had been on the run from his debts for over 10 years years only to be busted a day after joining Facebook to network with other professionals in his field.

Vicknair, 35, owes the Department of Education around $15,000 in student loans and has been dodging payments for more than a decade. Vicknair explained that since his credit is so bad he purchases things in cash to remain untraceable.

“I’ve always had jobs as waiters, or jobs that last summers or a couple years — a bit of a gypsy,” Vicknair says. “So it’s really impossible to track me down. And there’s even been times in my life where they’ve found me, and I just quit the job so that I didn’t have to deal with it. And then I just found a new job.”

His avoidance’s demise came when his employer suggested he join Facebook to connect with other professionals in his field. Just one day after creating his account and releasing his contact information the phone rang for Vicknair. He knew the jig was up when the voice on the other line from a bureau of the Treasury Department butchered the pronunciation of his name. “‘Oh, I’ve heard this call before.’ Lots of times,” he stated.

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Employers have been known to review prospective employee’s social pages before reaching a decision about employment, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that collection agencies are now utilizing social networking sites to find people of interest.

What is surprising is how some companies are using these sites in order to collect on a debt. Romo spoke to Gary Nitzkin, an attorney from Nitzkin and Associates, who shed some light on the practice of social networking tracking.

Nitzkin remarked that Vicknair got off easy compared to the acts some of his employees practice to collect a debt via social networking sites.

“My collectors and skip tracers will put their name in to be a friend to the debtor,” he says. “And then they can get into their inner circle and talk to their other friends. Find out what they’re doing. Are they going boating today — on their new sailboat? Well, guess what? We just found an asset that we can take.”

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But hang on just a second. Isn’t there that little thing called the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) that, “protects debtors from being harassed, and also prohibits collectors from doing or saying anything that’s false or misleading”?

Granted, the FDCPA was written and implemented 32 years ago, therefore social networking websites was a topic left undiscussed (and unfathomed for that matter), the Federal Trade Commission still stands by the act. When asked if it was legal to “friend” a debtor without mentioning the debt the response was as follows….

“FDCPA mandates that collectors must disclose that they are attempting to collect on a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose. It also requires that collectors state in subsequent communications with the debtor that they are a debt collector. A collector’s failure to make these disclosures would violate Section 807(11).”

For Nitzkin he believes it’s still a gray area. When asked if it was legal to deceive debtors via Facebook the way he explained some of his associates have done, he chuckled and said, “You know that’s a very interesting question. On the surface of it, I can tell you there’s nothing illegal about it”.

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He agrees that defense attorneys will most likely look at him and his ‘techniques’, for lack of a better word, as sneaky and uncalled for but that he and the plaintiff attorneys laugh about the situation and “think it’s a wonderful thing”.

In Vicknair’s case he could not run any longer. He has since worked out a payment plan with the Treasury Department. However, he is waiting now for his other creditors to find him now, either via Facebook or via the attention this article will bring. He simply states, “It will be interesting.”

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