Stop debt collectors digging up dirt on social media

By Michael Lloyd

If a loan or credit account goes into default, your lender may hand the debt over to a collections agency. Such agencies have certain rules to play by, but some of them cross the line. One of the newer methods of doing so involves tracking down debtors through social media. While you are obliged to pay back money you have borrowed, you should know your rights and how to tell when you're being harassed.

In 2011, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) banned collectors from contacting debtors via social media. At the time, there was growing concern about the practice of collections agents leaving messages about money owed on people's social media profiles, which obviously had the potential to be very embarrassing.debt-collectors-on-social-media

These days, if a debt collector tries to reach out to you via social media, it could be classified as harassment. Once the OFT becomes aware of such behaviour, the collections agency in question can lose its consumer credit licence.

However, debt agencies can still use what you put on your social media pages to their advantage. "As a general rule, we rarely see [creditors making direct contact with debtors through social media]," says Laura Bradder, media officer from the debt charity StepChange. "However, we have recently had reports from our clients of creditors using social media sites -- Facebook in particular -- to research a client's circumstances, and trying to use any information they find about their personal circumstances or activities against them in intimidating phone calls."

This kind of underhanded tactic is still frowned upon -- though not illegal, meaning a debt collector may try it. But if the OFT views it as bullying or intimidating behaviour, the collector is in trouble. Get up to speed on what kinds of information they might use and how to keep your social accounts for your friends' eyes only.

What collectors use, how to keep it private
If you've ever been on the receiving end of a phone call from a persistent collections agent, you know all too well that they are not shy about using any and all information about you to make their case.

Post a Facebook status about going to exercise at a gym that requires a membership, and the collector may suggest that you cancel it to help pay off your debt. Tweet about your pet, and the caller may suggest you find a new owner for it to help clear what you owe.

If you're concerned about debt collectors harvesting information from your social media profiles, there are steps you can take to limit what they can access:

  • Set the privacy settings on your social media accounts on high. If you don't know how to change your settings, the service should have a help page to give you instructions.

  • Where possible, make sure only your approved contacts can access content on your social media profiles.

  • If you need to use social media for work, set up separate professional and personal accounts, keeping the latter closed to public access.

  • Don't accept friend requests from people you don't know. Sneaky debt collectors might send you a friend request on the off chance that you might be the type who accepts all requests. Accepting a request means giving the person on the other end access to all your private content.

  • Try to avoid posting information that relates to your financial situation on your social media profiles. Don't add content that relates to lifestyle choices or purchases that could be seen as frivolous or extravagant. If you're posting regular pictures of shopping sprees at expensive stores and nights out in pricey bars, you might find that any collector who sees these will come after you with greater vigour.

  • Don't communicate with debt collectors by email. Some social media websites allow people to search for you using your email address, so doing so could lead an enterprising collections agent straight to your profile.

  • If you suspect that a debt collector is attempting to snoop on your social media profiles, complain. Gather evidence that demonstrates that you have been pursued -- don't delete any activity (such as dishonest friend requests from collectors) that could be used to support your complaint.

"Although rare, these kinds of underhand tactics are never acceptable, and we would always advise people to make a complaint if they experience anything of this kind," Laura Bradder from StepChange says. "Write to your creditor in the first instance, but don't be afraid to contact the Financial Ombudsman or Financial Conduct Authority if necessary."

Your social media accounts may not be the source
While keeping your social media platforms secure will prevent debt collectors from getting hold of some personal information, it's important to realise that other online sources can hold lots of information on you, too.

For instance, if you've been declared bankrupt or are the subject of a Debt Relief Order or Individual Voluntary Arrangement, information about you will be held on the Individual Insolvency Register. Own a property, and your details will appear on the searchable Land Registry. If you have been or currently are the director of a company, collectors will be able to get information about your business activities via Companies House.

Collections agents can and do frequently make use of these sources, along with information from your credit record. If you feel as though debt collectors are using information they have gathered about you online to bully or harass you, contact a debt charity, the Financial Ombudsman or the Financial Conduct Authority to discuss what action you may be able to take.

See related: How to deal with debt collectors, 4 wrong ways to pay off credit card debt

Published: 9 December 2014