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Protecting your online privacy against debt collectors

January 09th 2013

Consumer rights have been a much debated topic since the time credit became the alternative to currency. Credit enabled people to live beyond their means and eventually a section of the population fell into a debt ditch. Financial institutions and lenders began to use the services of collection agencies to recover money from debtors. The nature of credit transactions grew progressively complex over time and collection agencies took advantage of the lax regulatory system to exploit the average credit consumers at large. Collection agencies resorted to nefarious tactics, from verbally threatening people with physical harm to criminal prosecution.

Under pressure from consumer rights advocacy groups, the federal government introduced the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in 1978. It was designed to eliminate the abusive practices collectors resorted to in the process of collecting debts as well as protect consumer’s rights in general.

Although the FDCPA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) managed to curb unfair collection practices to a very large extent, collectors kept finding new avenues to exploit consumers. In an age where the most powerful communication tool is considered to be the Internet, social networking services like Twitter and Facebook are turning out to be the favored hunting grounds for collectors.

Here are some strategic steps to help you boost your online security as a preemptive measure to keep collectors from infringing on your online privacy.

  • Use your security settings – When you open an account or create your profile on a social networking site, the information you list is usually set at the lowest level of security by default. In such a case, anybody and everybody can see whatever you post or upload, your personal information like your contact numbers, address, employer, information on your friends and family, etc. You essentially need to change your security settings so as to prevent strangers from having access to your information. Change your access details from ‘public’ to ‘friends only’ and enable secure hypertext transfer protocol. The site’s ‘Help’ section should have a instructions on how to do all of this.
  • Don’t talk to strangers – The most common mistake the social network users make is accepting friend requests from unknown people. Even strangers who have common friends with you may be a potential threat. Collectors are known to set up fake profiles and befriend debtors in order to gain access to their private information and whereabouts. It is therefore advisable to not accept requests from people you have never met personally.
  • Post prudently – Social networking sites try and inculcate a virtual sense of comfort amongst users through a private platform on which friends and family interact. Even if your profile is secured tight, your friend’s profile might get hacked and unwanted people may gain access to your information. Moreover, certain inbuilt features of social networking sites ‘tag’ your posts with the location you are posting from. Most people are absolutely oblivious to this fact and end up divulging their whereabouts unknowingly. Debt collectors look for such posts in order to track down debtors and their relatives.
  • Respond promptly to collection communications – Debt collectors would only resort to underhanded tactics like using a social networking site to track you down in case they are unable to reach you through normal channels. It’s better to respond to collection letters or e-mails without hesitation. You can just as well send a Cease & Desist letter and tell them to stop all attempts at communicating with you. If the debt is valid, the collectors can sue you for it. It’s better to work with them and offer to settle the account.

The data gathered on debtors through an online social network is being used by collection agencies to various effects. Consumer’s rights experts suggest that it is high time to start thinking of social network security not as an added advantage but as a necessity for protecting your privacy.

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