When you post your whereabouts on Facebook or tweet that you've come into a windfall or new job, it's not just your closest 100 friends who care.
Debt collectors are using social media sites to track those who owe money.
"It's just like debt collectors using the Yellow Pages," says Mark Schiffman, spokesman for ACA International, a debt collectors' trade association. "It's another resource."
Social media have become a public confessional as consumers plugged into MySpace, LinkedIn and other sites post all sorts of information about themselves, from their job prospects to spending habits. A lot of that information is available for the world to see — and in debt collection, public information is fair game.
Collectors use social media to locate hard-to-find debtors or to find out whether consumers are working and where. Information on the sites also might help assess whether a consumer has the means to repay. So, telling a bill collector you don't have the cash to pay while posting pictures of your recent Aruba trip or new car may cast doubt on your claims of hardship.
Consumer advocates say the practice of debt collection through social media is growing, though perhaps not widespread yet. They also point out that federal consumer protections against abusive or intrusive collection practices apply in the social media world, too. Debt collectors, for instance, can't pretend to be your friend to gain access to your Facebook page.
Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc., a Florida-based group that provides debt management programs, started tracking the trend this summer and has heard from a few dozen consumers who said they had been contacted through Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn by someone trying to collect a past-due bill.
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda lawyer specializing in social media, says a few of his clients have been tracked by debt collectors through networking sites — including one who said a debt collector insisted he could afford to repay a debt based on his Facebook postings.
And Sonya Smith-Valentine, a consumer lawyer in Largo, says debt collectors had informed her that they are surfing social media to locate debtors, so she alerted her clients to be careful.
"It's a shock. Most people don't think of that," Smith-Valentine says. "Social media is just ripe with information for collectors to use."
Some in the debt collection industry say the use of social media is unlikely to catch on, partially because of information overload. Debt collectors have other more effective means of tracing people, and trolling for any useful information on social media sites — and the multiple posts some people make on a daily basis — is far too time-consuming, says Leslie Bender, a privacy lawyer and debt collector in Timonium.
"Imagine what you would have to read to get to that point to find that information," she says.
Fred Blitt, president of the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys, says social media are most likely to be used by debt collectors pursuing large sums, such as an unpaid $25,000 credit card bill.
Sites are helpful in finding people who frequently move, making it possible to serve them notice that a collector is suing them for payment, he says. This is useful because when debtors can't be found, a case can be dismissed after a set period of time. (Cases in Maryland can be dismissed as early as four months after the original summons was issued if the debtor isn't served.)
Debt collectors also search sites, such as the professional network LinkedIn, to find out where people work and then can seek to have their wages garnisheed, he says.
But there are limits on how far debt collectors can go using social media, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Even if you publicly post your vacation or new car, the federal law would prohibit collection agencies from using that to "harass or shame you" into paying, says Richard Rubin, a consumer rights lawyer and author and lecturer on the fair debt law.
Debt collectors must identify themselves when contacting you and give the reason, Rubin says. Collection agencies also can't notify friends, neighbors or other outsiders about your debt. That means they can't tweet or post messages on your Facebook wall that you are in arrears.
Even sending you a private e-mail on a social media site is questionable, Rubin says, because the collection agency runs the risk that it has the wrong person.
But collectors can use the information you publicly post to assess whether you have the means to repay debts, possibly leading them to take you to court, Rubin says.
If you're worried about debt collectors tracking you through social media — or worse, burglars and identity thieves — take extra steps to protect personal information.
"The more you put in there, the more you leave yourself open," says Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services.