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From The Grio – Is the latest person following you on Twitter or friending you on Facebook actually a debt collector in disguise?

That could very well be the case if you’re behind on your bills.

As debt collectors step up their efforts to collect money, the social media landscape is becoming the latest battleground in the war between cash-strapped consumers and persistent creditors.

At issue are several murky legal questions, such as: When is it acceptable for debt collectors to track someone down or contact him or her through social networking sites, including Facebook or MySpace? And how much information, if any, can a debt collector reveal about a debtor to that person’s online friends and social networking acquaintances?

Some debt collectors have reportedly harassed people on Facebook, trying to get them to pay debts that were supposedly owed. Other creditors and third-party debt collectors have allegedly contacted consumers’ friends and family members online in an attempt to embarrass the debtors. All these actions are illegal and prohibited by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.

“They’re using Facebook because it adds that extra shock value. The more shocking, the more harassing, the more outrageous, the more these debt collectors get paid,” Florida attorney Bill Howard recently told MSNBC.com.

“What makes it so dangerous is you can contact somebody’s family and friends very quickly and very easily, and you can set off a domino effect of panic that can be devastating,” says Howard, who is head of the consumer protection division at the law firm of Morgan & Morgan.

What is legal, however, is for a debt collector to use information gleaned from social networking sites in order to reach you for the purposes of collecting a debt. This doesn’t mean the debt collector can misrepresent himself or pose as a friend in order to connect with you online at Facebook or other sites. That’s in violation of federal law.

But it is perfectly acceptable, legal experts say, for debt collectors to use social media platforms to locate you, as long as they adhere to the FDCPA.

What about writing on someone’s Facebook wall — where others could see the message?Experts say that would be deemed inappropriate and illegal. But how about sending you a direct message on Facebook or Twitter? That may be within the law.

Because these issues aren’t always so cut-and-dried, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in late April 2011 held a panel on the topic. The FTC panel, called “Debt Collection 2.0: Protecting Consumers as Technologies Change,” was designed to examine the practices of debt collectors in a modern era of social networking.

FTC officials haven’t yet issued any definitive guidance on the matter, beyond asserting that debt collectors are required to adhere to the FDCPA both online and offline.

Still, at the very least, debt collectors’ stepped up use of social media is raising new questions about what’s legal and what’s not. It’s also becoming a thorny area for consumers to navigate, especially since 61percent of all Americans over the age of 12 — including a huge percentage of Blacks in the U.S – use social networking sites. African-Americans represent more than 25% of all users on Twitter alone.

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