Is Your Internet Girlfriend Actually a Debt Collector?

So one day you get a random friend request on Facebook from the most bodacious blonde bombshell you’ve ever laid eyes on. Normally you don’t accept randoms, but she’s a babe so you make an exception. You make some small talk, and to your delight she suggests meeting. When you roll up to her address, it isn’t a pub, but an office building – and your girl isn’t the swimsuit model she appeared to be online, but a chubby, balding older man. As if getting catfished wasn’t humiliating enough, your date also reveals that he’s a debt collector – and it’s time for you to pay up. This all sounds totally wild, but scenarios like this could become reality if debt collection laws aren’t reformed to cover 21st-century technology, and soon.

This hypothetical debt collector’s game isn’t necessary legal, but – due to a gray area created by outdated laws – it’s not necessarily illegal either. You see, the law says a lot about what debt collectors can do to a person on the phone and through the mail, but because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was drafted in 1978, it doesn’t say a thing about the Internet. What this means is that while a debt collector isn’t allowed to call you up on the phone and claim to be, say, a lawyer and threaten you with legal action, there’s nothing that explicitly prohibits an imposter from using bikini babe pics to get at you through Facebook and other online services. And with abusive debt collection practices on the rise, you can bet these snakes are taking full advantage of the ungoverned territory that is social media.

Take, for instance, what happened to Melanie Beacham. She owed just $362 on her car payments – a drop in the bucket considering that the average American owes over $7,000 to creditors. The collection company started calling. And emailing. And texting. So she set up a payment plan and thought the worst was over. But she was wrong. The debt collector began spamming her Facebook friends with messages urging them to have her call him. Of course, this guy already knew how to get in contact with Melanie outside of social media, so this super-invasive strategy was nothing more than a scare tactic to get her to pay up more quickly. That way, one assumes, the collector could get a higher commission.

Unfortunately, Melanie isn’t the only one who’s been forced to play this game. It’s becoming more and more common for debt collectors to use social media to figure out how to contact you, or to see if you’ve been lying about your assets. You’ve got to be smart. If you say you’re broke and can’t make a payment, don’t post photos of your brand new Rolex. At the very least, get with the rest of the world and make your profile private already! And keep your eyes open, because collectors aren’t just invading Facebook and Twitter. Professional networking sites like LinkedIn make it easy for collectors to gain information about your salary and employment status – information that would have been much more private in the pre-Internet era.

The laws that protect you from disturbing debt collection practices were written in the 1970s. That means you’re essentially stuck with a disco-dancing, polyester-leisure-suit-clad man with a .38 to protect you against a cyborg from Planet Future with nuclear moonjuice guns. The odds are just really stacked against you. Fortunately, it seems that a little help is on the horizon. Recognizing just how many Americans (pretty much all of us) are saddled by debt, Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau, has stated that consumer debt will be a top priority of the agency moving forward. So keep filing those complaints with the CFPB until the law is rewritten. When it finally happens, we won’t have to worry about getting catfished by debt collectors anymore. If you want to speed this process up – and who doesn’t? – petition the government. Although there’s no guarantee anything will come of it, all those signatures let the government know what’s important to us. It puts the pressure on them to take action. And with one in five Americans in debt, imagine what an impact it’d make if we all signed.