Debt collectors can be unlawful and abusive. But if you know your rights when dealing with debt collection agencies, you can keep them in their place.

While I’ve been in deep debt, I’ve never been in deep with a debt collector. And that’s a very good thing, because those are not the kind of Dollar Bill Dobermans you’ll ever want staring you down. Actually, a canine Doberman may be vicious—but it’s more likely to fight fair than some debt collectors.

Debt collectors are going digital

The same type of digital wizardry that roboadvisors use is being wielded by collection agencies, says Patrick Semrad, Managing Partner of DebtStoppers, a bankruptcy law firm and debt relief agency based in Chicago. “Everything runs on computer algorithms, from debt buying to timing of collection activities. The more recent the default, the more likely a collector is to recover.”

Here’s what that means in practical terms: “Missing two payments on any type of debt can likely cause a collection activity,” Semrad says. “Keep in mind that with car payments, creditors will often turn to a repossession agent before they turn a debt over to a collector. These agents prefer to catch people off guard when attempting to repossess a car.”

It’s always better to avoid such surprises by keeping a close watch over your payments, and making sure you contact the creditor as soon as you notice a late payment, or start to run late. But what if you’re not so fortunate? What can the collectors do—or try to do—and how can you fight back?

For starters, know that some aren’t beyond using a high-tech twist on lowball tactics. Debt collectors now use social media to get at their targets—and there are actual cases of collectors posting humiliating screeds on Facebook or messaging someone’s friends and contacts as a way of applying the pressure. Ouch.

Related: Yes, you can get out of debt (I did!)

True, not all debt collectors are bad people—we’re talking about a minority of practitioners here. But if an one crosses your path, here’s what you need to know about how the less scrupulous collectors work the social media turf:

  • They set up a fake profile and friend a late payer, or follow the debtor on Twitter, to solicit and gather personal information. At the very least, this sleazy practice poses ethical concerns—setting up a fake identity is lying.
  • If your privacy settings aren’t managed on Facebook, collectors can gather your birth date, address and even employment information—vital tidbits that can help track you down.
  • Debt collectors have been known to post messages on social media sites to broadcast a consumer’s indebtedness. This uses shame and humiliation in, yes, a shameless way.

Know your rights

This behavior runs counter to the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act of 1978, which provides harsh penalties against collectors who violate the law. The FDCPA and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 “protect millennials from abusive tactics.” Semrad says these include:

  • Threats of jail or litigation that aren’t legitimate
  • Calls at inconvenient times
  • Using predictive dialing systems to set up “robocalls” to your cell phone
  • Making false representations about the debt
  • Sharing debt information with third parties such as your place of employment

Still, both laws hit the books long before the dawn of social media and widespread Internet use. More modern regulations, at both the state and federal level, are giving consumers a way to fight back, especially on the social media front. But their wins may not come until after you’ve been taunted via Twitter or shaken down via Facebook.

Federal Trade Commission: Debt collection consumer information

How to protect yourself

In the face of this behavior, you can protect yourself in several ways.

Realize that any debt—no matter how small or seemingly innocent the lateness—could trigger a collection agency to spring into action. Experts say that the best overall strategy involves being proactive. Reach out to debt collectors before they have a chance to reach you (and your friends and followers) via social media channels.

Debt collectors can’t contact you any time of day, particularly during work hours if your employer forbids it, and they can’t persistently bug you when you’re busy. Nor can they ring up your smartphone. “Most collection calls to cell phones are illegal unless expressly permitted by the [receiver],” Semrad says, adding that fines for violating this range from $500 to $1500 per call.

But assuming you want to work with debt collectors, you do have to let them know your restrictions. This letter template from the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau provides an easy way to relay to collectors how you prefer to be contacted. While there’s nothing in the template about social media, you can certainly add a sentence that says, “Please do not attempt to reach me via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media channels.”

Take solace in the fact that courts have been sympathetic in ordering debt collectors to stop using social media, as a Florida court did in 2011. The case involved a woman named Melanie Beacham who fell behind on her car payments to the extravagant sum of … $362.

If you think you’re being either harassed or unduly pressured, online or off, there is hope. “Millennials should seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in debt relief as well as FDCPA violations,” Semrad says. “Many of the laws that protect against abusive debt collection provide for payment of attorney’s fees in addition to the hefty damages that will be paid directly to the consumer. Because these cases are often easy to prove, many lawyers will not ask [you] to pay and will instead seek their fees from the debt collector.”

As a parting shot—for you, and against those devious debt collectors—Semrad notes: “Abusive collection techniques are common because so few borrowers know the law. However, these practices are extremely unprofitable against [people] who understand their rights. So document calls, and keep all letters, texts, emails and communications. If you have previously given the collector permission to call your cell phone or call you at work, withdraw that consent.”

He adds: “One of the founding principles of this country was the end of debtors’ prison. If you feel trapped by debt, there are very strong remedies available.”

Summary

Debt collectors are adapting to the digital age in sometimes unscrupulous ways: they are using social media to scrutinize and shame debtors, and they are illegally contacting people’s cellphones while trying to collect.

It’s very important that you know your rights: you can limit how collectors can contact you, and if they break the law you can take legal action against them (and they’ll have to pay your legal fees). If you are being pursued by a collection agency, work with them to pay off your debt, but don’t let them bully or harass you.

Related: Your options for overwhelming debt: Consolidation, settlement and bankruptcy

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About the author

Total Articles: 36
Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at [email protected], or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).