Facebook is great for looking up that girl who stole your lunchbox in preschool. Being clever enough on Twitter can land you a book deal. And if you're a debt collector, social media is remarkably helpful in helping you to track down people who haven't paid their bills.
"Between Facebook and LinkedIn—a lot of people show up online in different places. They don't even realize," says Howard Beloff, president of CSRS Collections, a small collection agency in Rockville, Md.
Beloff's company collects on a variety of debts: late rent, medical companies, delinquent private school tuition. In many cases, he says, especially in those of people who have amassed rent bills, these debtors have moved and are hard to find. That's where the investigative work of debt collecting comes in. And in the arsenal of tools at their disposal, debt collectors find social media an immensely helpful addition.
A few decades ago, collectors had to rely old-school tools like the White Pages for basic information on whether a debtor had moved or changed phone numbers. The Internet changed that completely, says Mark Schiffman, spokesperson for ACA International, a trade group of credit and collection professionals.
"From a tech perspective, it's easier access to public information, versus having 50 phone books or 100 phone books in my office," Schiffman says. "Now you have the Internet and people putting information that's publicly available out there. People are putting out a little billboard" for themselves, he says.
That's not all of the help that the Internet affords collectors. Some states put their court records online, and online "skip tracing" sites help agencies find potential addresses for debtors.
It sounds like a lot of avenues to pursue, just to track down where someone lives. But all this online information can be used for much larger purposes. An up-to-date LinkedIn site can give a collector easy information on if and where that person works, says Beloff, which is valuable information for a collection agency that wants to garnish a debtor's wages. In other words, put information—a public Facebook status, a LinkedIn update, a tweet—about getting hired at a new job onto the internet and collectors get a signal that you might have money available.
Simply reading what a debtor has made public on social media is not illegal, and it's hard to argue it's unethical; collectors are simply using available information. Still, there are strict laws ensuring that the investigation goes little further. While a debt collector can look at a debtor's Facebook page, Twitter feed, or LinkedIn listing for information, for example, she can't tweet, message, or even E-mail the debtor with information about outstanding balances.
One collector talks about the difference between acceptable tactics and those that venture into deceptive territory.
"If I were to be a bit surreptitious and if I were to actually try to become your friend on Facebook and you were to accept me as a friend on Facebook, I would get access to all kinds of really, really good information on you," says Bill Bartmann, CEO of Oklahoma-based debt collection company CFS II. That kind of deception, he says, is different from simply Googling or Facebook-searching a debtor.
Schiffman says that while complaints have been filed with the government over the use of social media in collections, he does not believe that the use of social media has led to a spike in complaints. Still, debt collection complaints have risen in recent years, from 128,000 in 2009 to nearly 152,000 in 2010, and again to nearly 181,000 in 2011.
According to data supplied by ACA, debt collections have also grown recently. Collections at third-party debt collectors totaled $44.6 billion in 2010 , up more than $4 billion from 2007, before the crisis, though employment at those firms was down slightly over the same period.
However, the population of debtors to pursue is growing: Roughly one in seven Americans—slightly more than 14 percent—is being pursued by a debt collector, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That's up substantially from mid 2003, when the figure was around 9 percent. The amount available to collect is up, too, from around $900 per debtor then to over $1,500 now.
While a certain, small percentage of debtors habitually run up bills and neglect to pay them, says Bartmann. the recent economic downturn brought a new population onto the debtor rolls: people not used to being pursued. While some may be facing financial hardship and be unable to pay, there are many others who want to get their debts discharged quickly.
He feels that this new population has, in some ways, made collections easier.
"Are customers more apt to pay now than in previous economic cycles? That answer is yes," Bartmann says.
Still, he advises caution to anyone making too much of their lives public online. His word of advice to debtors: "Be careful what you put out there."
That, he says, or just pay your bills as best you can. Neglecting to pay altogether can make prices higher and credit tougher to get for everyone.
Beloff agrees: "The thing is, is that for anybody who pays their bills, they should hate people who don't."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.