Using Social Media To Collect Debts And Catch Criminals

Published Apr 23, 2012 at 01:56 PM | 1,804 views

Social media has taken the world by storm! At any given moment, people are checking in around the globe, updating you on what they are doing, and even taking and posting photos along the way. Seems innocent enough, right? Well the answer to that question probably depends on who you are and what you may or may not be hiding.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other up and coming social media websites are marketed as places where you can go to connect with friends, family, and even business associates. While that is true, most people don't realize who else could be following their every move.

Currently on the rise, is the use of social network services by law enforcement to catch lawbreakers and fugitives or to close unsolved criminal cases. You will also find recovery agents or "repo men" using various social media sites to track down delinquent car owners. Even debt collectors have jumped on the social media bandwagon in order to try and collect money from their debt dodgers.

For example, take this scenario. Let's say you are a recovery agent tasked with locating and towing away vehicles that have been repossessed by banks and loan agencies. Your latest conquest has been evading your efforts to take back the car. You're stuck! So what do you do? How about finding that person up on Facebook and watching their status posts? Or what about following them on Twitter as they tweet about their every move?

Think about it. By following them through social media, you will know where they have been, where they are now, and where they are going next. If I am that repo agent, my job has just become much easier. Some agents have even created fake Facebook pages and set up fake "dates" or "meetings" with these delinquent owners. The repo man then tows away their vehicle when they are inside the meeting place waiting for their "friend" to arrive.

David Moskowitz owns an online investigation company called Case Breakers. Many of their clients are repossession professionals and fugitive recovery agents. One of the services offered by this company is the use of skiptracing, which is the process of collecting information about a subject in order to locate their whereabouts. "We often use social media networks to help us during the skiptracing process," says Moskowitz.

That brings us to another question. Is the use of social media for investigative purposes a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)? The purpose of the FDCPA is to eliminate abusive practices in the collection of consumer debts. Back in the 1970s when this act was first introduced, there was no way of anticipating the advances we have since made in communications and the Internet.

The Federal Trade Commission recently assembled a panel to discuss the use of social media in collections. The consensus of the panel was that there is nothing wrong with debt collectors and repossession agents browsing the various social media websites in order to discover information about a delinquent debtor, as long as the information they are obtaining is displayed publicly. For example, if someone posts their whereabouts on their Facebook wall, that is considered public information because the person posted it for all to see.

Even though the panelists agreed that it is acceptable to use social media for skiptracing and gathering public information about a debtor, the panel was divided about the use of social media to contact the debtors directly or through their social media contacts. For instance, a debt collector should not post a comment about the debtor on their Facebook wall because now they are publicly disclosing that person's debt. Trying to contact a debtor through their friends and family is also not permitted.

There are obviously many questions that the FDCPA will have to answer in the very near future. Regulations may have to be redefined and/or changed. So when looking ahead, the panelists agreed that further clarification will be needed regarding how collectors can use social media in pursuit of debtors.

One of the other trends that has become popular is the use of social networking sites to catch the perpetrators of past crimes and prevent new crimes from happening. Statistics show that nearly 900 police departments and sheriff's offices across the country now have Facebook pages.

In an Ohio city, the police have recruited a long list of Facebook friends that are helping them to catch criminals. The police department in Avon, Indiana has also jumped on board and created the "Avon Police Crime Tips" page on Facebook. This page, launched just one month ago, has already attracted more than 1,300 fans and led to 17 arrests. Most of these arrests were the result of people helping to identify shoplifters whose images were captured on surveillance video.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has taken it one step further. The NYPD has created a new online policing unit. This online policing team will search Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other social media websites looking for people who are bragging about their committed or upcoming crimes. So far, they have already caught criminals soliciting sex from minors.

Some criminals forget to use their common sense when it comes to covering their online tracks. For example, one criminal in Pennsylvania was caught when he actually logged into his Facebook account during a robbery. Another was a graffiti artist who posted a video on YouTube, which showed him defacing property with his "artwork." Facial recognition technology on social media sites is another way that perpetrators are getting caught.

The bottom line is simple. Social media can be used for good or for evil. You, the average citizen, could play a part in using social media to stop a crime, making your community a safer place to live. Or you could be a casualty, if you've done something questionable and it was somehow documented on a social media site. So your challenge is to figure out how you want to use social media in your life.

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