The next time someone tries to friend you on Facebook or follow you on Instagram, it could be a debt collector.
New rules approved by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that took effect on Tuesday dictate how collection agencies can email and text people as well as message them on social media to seek repayment for unpaid debts.
Kathleen L. Kraninger, the former CFPB director who oversaw the rule changes, said last year that they were a necessary update to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which is more than four decades old.
"We are finally leaving 1977 behind and developing a debt collection system that works for consumers and industry in the modern world," Kraninger said in a blog post.
But consumer advocates say borrowers risk missing key information about their debts or falling prey to illegal scams if they're contacted online.
"The rules are really disappointing and concerning in a number of ways," said April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
The new rules set limits for debt collectors
Under the new rules, debt collectors who contact you on social media have to identify themselves as debt collectors but can attempt to join your network by sending you a friend request. Collectors must give you the option to opt out of being contacted online, and any messages they send have to be private — collectors can't post on your page if it can be seen by your contacts or the public.
Collection agencies can also email and text message debtors, but must still offer the ability to opt out. Industry officials praised the move as a welcome change to the outdated methods currently used by the collections industry.
"Consumers in the collections process deserve to be on a level playing field with others in the financial services marketplace with recognition of their preference to use email and text messaging over other outdated methods, such as faxes as outlined in the current law," Mark Neeb, CEO of ACA International, a trade association for debt collectors, said in a statement.
Advocates say consumers will pay the price
Kuehnhoff said consumers should have been given the ability to opt into electronic messages rather than being forced to opt out of them. She suggested that consumers who don't check social media regularly or miss an email may fail to see critical information about a debt. Many people don't have regular access to the internet either, she added.
Allowing debt collectors to email, text and use social media to contact consumers also gives criminals a new avenue to try to swindle people out of their money, a practice Kuehnhoff expects to increase in the future.
"I have actually already gotten my first spam debt collection email even before the new rules took effect," she said. "So certainly we should anticipate more bad actors who are trying to scam people into paying them money on alleged debts."
Kuehnhoff suggested that consumers shouldn't click on links from people they don't know and said they could report any problems with debt collection messages to the CFPB.
The new rules were devised during the Trump administration, when the bureau became more business-friendly than it had been in the past. Kraninger resigned in January at the request of President Biden, who nominated Rohit Chopra to be the agency's new director.
The new rules also set a limit for the first time on how often debt collectors can call you. Agencies will be restricted to seven calls per week per account in collection.