Obey the Law
When I speak about technology and online behavior, one of the first things I say is, “if it isn’t ok offline, it isn’t ok online.” I have been saying this for many years. At first I said it about copyright law because people seemed to believe no copyright existed online. Now I am saying it about social media because people seem to lose their sense of propriety on social media sites. Regardless of the law in question, it is very important that businesses and individuals view their behavior with this understanding; technology does not alleviate the need to obey the law. Actually, what technology can do is provide proof of legal violations and spread that violation far wider than ever could have occurred offline.
Debt Collection Goes Social
One area in which online action has been increasing is debt collection. In a Chicago case a man accepted a friend request from an attractive woman in a bikini only to have his new friend write on his wall, “Pay your debts you deadbeat.”
I ask you, would it be acceptable for the debt collector to drive up to the person’s house at dinner time, stand out front with a megaphone and scream through it, “pay your debts you deadbeat?” Probably not. So why do the equivalent online?
Beacham v. MarkOne
The online world is now focusing on the case of Beacham v. Mark One Financial, LLC. The decision is sexy because it invokes Facebook. To me, however there is nothing surprising here, because it is proof that what I say all the time to law firms, companies and individuals is correct, namely, “behave online.” Yes, I am in essence saying, “I told you so.”
Beacham claims that MarkOne Financial, LLC violated her rights in its debt collection efforts. She claims that Mark One called her many times a day, contacted her neighbors, sent a courier to work, and essentially harassed her offline. All a no-no in the world of debt collection. But what caught everyone’s attention is that MarkOne allegedly contacted the woman on Facebook posting that she should call. MarkOne also supposedly contacted friends and family asking the people to have the woman call about a debt.
The court held that MarkOne Violated a Florida consumer protection law that prohibits harassment in its efforts to collect a debt. But let’s forget about Facebook for a moment. All of the behavior that was impermissible wasn’t so because it happened on Facebook. It was so because the law says the behavior is impermissible, no matter where it occurred. The public aspect of Facebook perhaps makes the behavior worse, more embarrassing, and so more egregious. It also provides all of the evidence a Court needed to rule against MarkOne.
I should note, MarkOne denies any wrongdoing here. “”MarkOne’s policy is to use Facebook to locate customers when the customer has a fully public profile, and when the customer has not responded to MarkOne through conventional means. Our policy is to respect privacy disclosure requirements and no negative or account information is shared with third parties.”
It is important that individuals appreciate their rights when it comes to debt collection, and that debt collection agencies understand that going online doesn’t enable them to ignore the various debt collection laws that exist at both the national and state level.
This particular case is just one in a line of many that will no doubt occur over the next months and years. Debt collectors and other companies are increasingly attempting to utilize the information or communication opportunities available via social media to get their jobs done. This is understandable, social media is a cheap and easy way to communicate and collect data.
It is crucial however that attorneys representing businesses who seek to move their communication and data collection activities online advise them to remember to obey the law. If the law is ignored, when the lawsuit is filed, the evidence will be right where the business left it, on the Plaintiff’s Facebook wall.