We’ve discussed before how data from social-networking sites (such as MySpace, Facebook or Bebo) are being used to gather evidence in criminal trials, against employees and applicants to jobs, and high school students as well as applicants to colleges and graduate schools. Last year, major Canadian insurance company Manulife revoked an Ontario woman’s sick leave benefits after the company accessed photos from Nathalie Blanchard’s Facebook profile — a profile that she had set as private and only viewable by approved friends. And divorce lawyers are gathering evidence from social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter.
Now, NPR reports on another group that’s using the personal data people publish on social-networking sites: debt-collection companies:
“It’s incredible the kind of information that people put out there about themselves,” says Gary Nitzkin, a credit collection attorney with his own firm, Nitzkin and Associates. […] Some of his employees go even further than just searching MySpace, LinkedIn or Facebook.
“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.”
And Nitzkin says that’s legal. […]
Maybe that’s because the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, or FDCPA, was written in 1978, before social media existed. The statute protects debtors from being harassed, and also prohibits collectors from doing or saying anything that’s false or misleading.
The Federal Trade Commission enforces the act. And when asked if it is legal for a collections agent to “friend” a debtor online without mentioning the debt, the FTC sent this e-mail response:
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).
But Nitzkin argues it’s a gray area for now. And he’s hoping that, in the end, he’ll come out on the right side of things.