In what her lawyer said is a first-of-its-kind case, Melanie Beacham, of St. Petersburg, Fla., filed a complaint against MarkOne Financial, LLC, alleging that employees of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company harassed her and her family members over Facebook to intimidate her into paying an alleged debt.
In papers filed with a Florida court, citing violations of state consumer protection law, Beacham is asking for damages as well as court intervention to stop MarkOne Financial from using the social network to contact her and her relatives.
"This is a huge invasion of privacy," said Billy Howard, Beacham's attorney. "It's important to send a message to other debt collectors that this type of invasion of privacy will not be tolerated by America. …Other people need to know that their rights are being violated by debt collectors when they are contacting friends and family members on Facebook."
In a statement, MarkOne Financial said it does not comment on pending litigation, but added, "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."
The company said that its policy is to use Facebook to locate customers when the customer has a fully public profile and when he or she has not responded to requests through "conventional means."
Howard said Beacham fell behind on car payments after taking medical leave from work. He said she contacted MarkOne to explain her circumstances but collectors started calling her, up to ten times a day.
Later, Beacham learned that the company contacted her sister and cousin via Facebook, Howard said, adding that it's possible that other friends and family members were also contacted.
"For an individual to know where you are and how to contact you, and then to be contacting you through Facebook, your family and friends through Facebook, it's a clear instance of harassment," he said.
Expert: Debt Collection Industry Needs Debate About Social Media
According to Beacham's complaint, MarkOne "intentionally harassed and abused the Plaintiff in outrageous format" in July, when a representative contacted two of Beacham's acquaintances on Facebook, asking them to call him.
A screengrab of the Facebook communication included with the complaint shows the representative writing: "Please Have Melanie D Beacham call me" and included his phone number. Howard said Beacham's sister deleted the message from MarkOne.
The original complaint was filed in August, but the motion to enjoin MarkOne from using Facebook to contact Beacham was added this month. Howard said MarkOne had not yet responded to the suit.
David Cherner, legal counsel and director of state government affairs for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, said that legal issues surrounding the usage of Facebook in debt collection are somewhat vague because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was written decades ago, long before the advent of social media.
"There are certain ambiguities in the law that create risks for debt collectors to communicate with consumers in certain ways," he said. "There needs to be debate about modernizing the law so that consumers can be communicated with how they choose."
Regardless of what kind of medium debt collectors use to reach consumers, Cherner said, they are prohibited from revealing information to third parties and cannot make false, deceptive, misleading or harassing representations.
When debt collectors use social media, they need to understand how they are going to be using it and for what purpose, he said, because it can be a risky practice.
"I think there certainly needs to be a broader debate about communications with consumers," he said. "The FDCPA was enacted so long ago and consumers communicate in so many ways and, not only that, but they want to be communicated with in so many ways."