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Associated Press, Published November 19 2010

Debt collection agency accused of harrassment on Facebook

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A Florida woman claims a debt collector went far beyond the usual phone calls in an attempt to recoup $362 for an unpaid car loan by sending her messages on Facebook – and by telling family on the social networking site to have her call the agency.

Melanie Beacham, who is suing the debt collection agency Mark One LLC in a Florida court, said she never expected to hear from a collection agency on Facebook, which she used to talk to loved ones and post the occasional photo or funny status update.

“I was shocked when I found out these collectors used Facebook to contact my family because they knew exactly where I was,” Beacham, 34, told The Associated Press in an e-mail on Thursday. “I’m angry they caused me so much embarrassment with my family.”

Beacham’s attorney, Billy Howard of the Morgan and Morgan law firm in Tampa, said the debt collectors violated Beacham’s privacy and Florida’s consumer protection law, which prohibits collectors from harassing people. Beacham filed the lawsuit in August, though updated court papers were filed Thursday.

“It’s an invasion of privacy on steroids,” Howard said. “Normally, it takes a while for collection agencies to contact family members or friends, or co-workers, but on Facebook you have a very powerful harassment tool at your fingertips.”

The lawsuit also claims that Mark One contacted Beacham six to 10 times a day by phone, sent her a text message, contacted her neighbor and sent a courier to deliver a letter to her workplace.

Beacham’s attorney has asked a judge to prohibit Mark One from contacting her or her family through Facebook or Twitter.

Beacham at one point took the license plate off her car, telling the debt collector in a text message to just take it away and stop contacting her, according to court documents.

In a statement sent Thursday, the collection agency said it will not discuss Beacham’s case and denied any wrongdoing. But the company acknowledged that its collectors use Facebook to find people when they don’t respond to other means, like letters and phone calls.

Beacham’s case won’t be heard in court until January, but it underscores how seemingly private information becomes quite public on the Internet.

“The reality is that debt collectors, law firms, private investigators – you can come up with a long list of people – are using Facebook as well as geo location networks such as Gowalla and Foursquare to track people down,” said Amy Webb, the CEO of the Baltimore-based Webbmedia Group, an international digital media consulting firm. “They can contact people through their connections and ultimately collect a debt or get incriminating information.”

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who along with Republican Sen. George LeMieux has introduced a bill aimed at curbing harassment from debt collectors, said he wasn’t surprised to hear of cases like Beacham’s.

“Unscrupulous debt collectors are using every tool at their disposal to make a buck, sometimes targeting the wrong person, going after debts that have already been collected, or harassing family members,” Franken said Thursday.

Howard said his office has gotten more than a dozen complaints similar to Beacham’s, and said recently debt collectors have started to use such sites more often.

Jeffrey Hyslip, a Chicago lawyer, said he had one client who was friended on Facebook by a young woman in a bikini. The account turned out to be a debt collector’s, something his client realized only when the “friend” posted a message on his wall: “Pay your debts, you deadbeat.”

Beacham’s lawsuit’s states that one of her family members received a Facebook message from a Mark One representative identifying himself as Jeff Happenstance.

“Please Have Melanie D Beacham call me ... Thanks,” the message said.

The family member replied by suggesting the person contact Beacham himself.

Hyslip said that kind of exchange could be a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which states that collection agencies are only allowed to contact third parties to confirm someone’s location.


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