New rule allows debt collectors to pursue you on Facebook

Starting this week, if you decide to friend or follow someone on social media you don’t recognize, they might surprise you with a debt collection notice in the app’s tiny font. That’s because for the first time, federal regulators have given debt collectors the ability to legally contact debtors via email, texts, and their social-media messages.

The new regulations went into effect Tuesday. In theory, they’re to “modernize” the decades-old rules under which debt collectors must operate when pursuing debtors. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was passed back in 1977 to stop abusive debt-collection practices, before there was internet or Facebook. These changes that just rolled out were introduced over a year ago by the Trump administration, whose Consumer Financial Protection Bureau took a friendlier stance toward the business community. In her first major speech in 2019 as head of the CFPB, director Kathleen Kraninger said it was very important to her to “modernize the legal regime for debt collection.” After the changes happened, she released a statement that announced: “We are finally leaving 1977 behind and developing a debt collection system that works for consumers and industry in the modern world.”

To reassure consumers it hasn’t created a shark-feeding-frenzy situation, the CFPB posted an online explainer titled “Understand how the CFPB’s Debt Collection Rule impacts you.” But consumer groups fear that by arming debt collectors with these additional avenues for debt collection, Americans will be exposed to millions of threatening or harassing emails, texts, and social-media messages they wouldn’t have received otherwise.

The CFPB notes in its explainer that the rules do impose limits on how debt collectors can go about doing this, particularly if they pick social media. For starters, these messages must be private. They can’t tweet at you, comment below your Instagram Reel, or post on your Wall, so debt collectors will have to rely on DMs. Also, they must identify themselves at the first chance to do so—no pretending to be a long-lost school classmate or whatever, only to tell you you owe Target a bunch of money. Finally, and most vitally for people who carry debt, the CFPB says you have the right to tell them to go away: “They must also provide you, in each message, a simple way to opt out of receiving further communications from them on that social media platform.”