(NerdWallet) – Social media is where you watch cooking videos, view photos of dream travel destinations, and scroll through endless news headlines. Now, sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter could also be where debt collectors sneak into your DMs.
At the end of 2021, changes to the rules under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act came into effect, which specify how third-party debt collectors can communicate via social media, email and text. .
Consumer rights advocates like April Kuehnhoff, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, worry that these rules could lead to confusion and an increase in scams.
“It’s much cheaper to use electronic communications to reach more people. We will see an increase in the number of illegitimate actors posing as debt collectors and sending emails, direct messages or text messages to people in an attempt to get them to pay money for debts that they don’t actually have to,” says Kuehnhoff.
Spotting the signs and knowing your rights can help guard against unfair and fraudulent debt collection practices. Here’s what to watch out for and how to stay safe when browsing notifications.
Recognize red flags
Several warning signs can alert you to abusive behavior or scams:
The message is not private
Collectors can ask to join your friends or followers as long as they tell you they are debt collectors. However, the FDCPA states that all communications must be private. This means that posts cannot be seen by the public or people in your network on the platform. If you receive a message that others can see, it signals a bad actor.
Important information is missing
Debt collectors are legally required to share specific details about the debt, including the amount owed, the name of the creditor, and information about your rights. They will usually provide this information, called validation notice, the first time they contact you or within five days.
“If someone just said ‘I’m a debt collector’ and nothing else, I would definitely be suspicious from the get-go,” says Katie Bossler, quality assurance specialist at GreenPath, a credit counseling agency in non-profit.
You are threatened or harassed
“Sometimes scammers threaten consumers with arrest or deportation or try to scare them into paying quickly,” says Kuehnhoff. But it is illegal for collectors to make threats or use violent or profane language.
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A collector also cannot legally sue you if the debt is statute barred or past the statute of limitations. How do you know if your debt is time-barred? Research your state laws and review your payment history on your credit reports. Or consider seeking help from your local legal aid office or nonprofit credit counseling agency.
You are asked to make an unusual payment
Fraudsters often seek prompt payment through hard-to-recover methods. A legitimate debt collector won’t force you to pay using questionable means such as a money transfer, bitcoin terminal, or prepaid card, Kuehnhoff says. “They won’t tell you to go to the Apple Store and buy an Apple [gift] map.”
Do not pay anything without first confirming that the debt and the collector are real. You can learn more about fake and abusive debt collectors from the Federal Trade Commission.
Know and protect your rights
The FDCPA gives you certain protections. For example, you can disable communications. Collectors are required to provide an easy and free way to end social media contact. This will not, however, erase the debt.
You also have the right to dispute a debt that you believe is incorrect or that does not belong to you. However, you will need to submit a written request within 30 days of receiving the notice if you wish to dispute or obtain more information about the debt. Information on how to do either should be included in the collector’s initial communication.
How can you check the debt and the collector? Bossler suggests getting your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com first. “Make a list of debts you owe: creditors, balances, account numbers. The debt collector will often refer to the last four digits of the account number,” says Bossler.
You may be dealing with a collection service for the original creditor, which makes it easier to match details. But the original creditor may have sold the debt to an outside company. This third-party collector must provide information such as their name, company, and mailing address. Use these details to verify their authenticity.
“Several states have their debt collection licenses registered with the NMLS, the National Multistate Licensing [System]“, explains Kuehnhoff. “Even if your state doesn’t use it, it may be worth checking to see if this name is a legitimate debt collection name registered in other states.”
Even if everything checks out, don’t feel pressured to pay right away. Making a payment could revive a debt that had passed the statute of limitations. Instead, give yourself time to make a plan that works for you and your budget.
If a debt collector violates your rights or you are scammed, you can file a complaint with the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or your state attorney general’s office.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.