MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: It's a friendly online world out there - fun to connect with old schoolmates on MySpace and Facebook and to catch up with coworkers on LinkedIn. But for anyone with something to hide, Vanessa Romo reports that you might want to think twice about that next friend request.
VANESSA ROMO: As soon as he got the call, Isaac Vicknair knew he was busted.
ISAAC VICKNAIR: I've been known to be a rapscallion from time to time. And I've had some credit problems because of that.
ROMO: Vicknair is a 35-year-old solar panel salesman with a slew of credit problems. His credit is so bad that...
VICKNAIR: I can't buy a car, house or a gumball. But if I use cash I can do whatever I want.
ROMO: He owes the Department of Education just under $15,000 in student loans. But for more than a decade, he's managed to evade collection agencies and their skip tracers - those are the people collection agencies hire to find delinquents like Vicknair.
VICKNAIR: I've always had jobs as waiters or jobs that last summers or a couple years - a bit of a gypsy. So it's really impossible to track me down. And there's even been times in my life where they've found me and I just quit the job so that I didn't have to deal with it.
ROMO: But two weeks ago, Vicknair says he unwittingly set his own trap.
VICKNAIR: My bosses actually asked me to use Facebook as a social networking tool for meeting other people in the solar field. So I did that and I put my full contact information on there for the first time. So within one day of putting my work information on Facebook, the secretary gets a call from some lady who totally gets my name wrong and I pick up the phone and they're like, is Mr. Isaac Vicknair there? And I was, like, oh, I've heard this call before.
ROMO: The woman on the other end of the line was contacting him on behalf of a bureau of the United States Department of Treasury responsible for collecting monies owed to the government. They were threatening to garnish his wages unless he set up a payment plan. Collection agencies, like everyone else, are now using social networking sites to track down or keep tabs on people they're interested in.
GARY NITZKIN: It's incredible the kind of information that people put out there about themselves.
ROMO: Gary Nitzkin is a credit collection attorney with his own firm Nitzkin and Associates. He says Vicknair got off easy. Nitzkin's employees go even further than just searching MySpace, LinkedIn or Facebook.
NITZKIN: My collectors and skip tracers will put their name in to be a friend to the debtor. Are they going boating today on their new sailboat? Well, guess what, we just found an asset that we can take.
ROMO: Is this legal?
NITZKIN: Is it legal?
NITZKIN: You know, it's a very interesting question. On the surface of it, I can tell you there's nothing illegal about it.
ROMO: Maybe that's because the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, FDCPA for short, was written in 1978, before social media existed. The statute protects debtors from being harassed and also prohibits collectors from doing or saying anything that's false or misleading. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the act. And when asked if it is legal for a collections agent to friend a debtor online without mentioning the debt, the FTC sent this email response.
FDCPA: (Reading) The FDCPA mandates that collectors must disclose that they are attempting to collect on a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose. It also requires that collectors state in subsequent communication with the debtor that they are a debt collector. A collector's failure to make these disclosures would violate Section 807(11).
NITZKIN: If you ask defense attorneys, they'll tell you that what I do is underhanded, sneaky and completely uncalled for.
ROMO: But Nitzkin argues it's a grey area for now.
NITZKIN: If you ask my colleagues - the plaintiff attorneys that collect these debts - we're laughing. We think it's a wonderful thing.
ROMO: As for Isaac Vicknair, he's given up hiding and made arrangements to pay off most of his debt.
VICKNAIR: The dark horse is there's one more out there, waiting. Waiting to find me on Facebook, and maybe they haven't and maybe they will through this story. It'll be interesting.
ROMO: For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.