Melanie Beacham had received letters, phone calls and a courier from the auto loan debt collector, but when an agent contacted her family and friends through Facebook, she decided to fight back.
Beacham sued MarkOne Financial LLC of Tampa, Fla. for harassment and inflicting emotional distress and has asked a Florida court to bar the agency from contacting her loved ones through the social media site in what the lawsuit said is "a campaign to embarrass, intimidate and harass her into paying an alleged debt." The lawsuit seeks $15,000 in damages and also seeks punitive damages.
Beacham claimed a MarkOne agent pretended to be "Jeff Happenstance" and contacted her friends, asking they get Beacham to call him. It was the latest in the debt collector's bag of tricks that included phone calls up to 10 times a day to her home, work and cell phones, according to the lawsuit filings. MarkOne also sent a letter by courier to her workplace after Beacham set up a payment schedule with Mark One for the alleged $1,172 debt, the lawsuit said.
MarkOne denied any wrongdoing and in a statement sent to Consumer Ally said that its collectors use Facebook after people don't respond to other means:
"Mark One has and will continue to operate in a legal manner. We have not and will not publicly discuss or disclose private facts about a MarkOne customer's situation in the media, even though we believe the full facts will clearly defend our position. We do not comment on pending litigation. We firmly believe that the facts will demonstrate that the harassment allegations made against us are false, and that we have and do operate within the spirit and scope of the law.
"We understand that there are a myriad of reasons that customers experience interruptions in their ability to pay. We attempt to make direct contact with a customer to help them stay current and reduce the incidence of repossessions. We can only do this when we have contact with the customer."
"MarkOne's policy is to use Facebook to locate customers when the customer has a fully
public profile, and when the customer has not responded to MarkOne through conventional
means. Our policy is to respect privacy disclosure requirements and no negative or account
information is shared with third parties."
Facebook can be an attractive tool to debt collectors because it does their work for them, Beacham's lawyer Billy Howard told Consumer Ally. But a consumer's right to privacy includes their use of Facebook.
"It's a very cheap and easy way to harass people," he says. "It's a scary proposition when it happens, because people aren't expecting it. People are used to it over the phone ... People shouldn't be in fear of their Facebook account."
Howard said his firm has gotten more than a dozen complaints in the past couple of months from consumers who have been contacted by debt collectors on Facebook. Howard, who specializes in consumer protection issues, recommends that if you receive harassing messages in any electronic form - text messages, email or voice mails -- to save them as evidence of the harassment.
Debt collectors nationwide have been slapped for using aggressive tactics including using abusive language and threatening legal action. Consumers do have protections against such methods, with rules including governing when collectors can call and how often.
Consumers can also help themselves with a few handy tips, including filing a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.