No one likes debt collector calls, especially when you have no debts to collect. Unfortunately for everyone, debt collectors may soon bypass the phone call and head straight to text messages. You’ll have to spot the difference between a legitimate-looking scam text and a valid debt collection text. That’s assuming they don’t email you or direct message you on your favorite social network instead.
Update, 12/2/21: These changes took effect November 30th, 2021. Debt collectors can now send you a DM on social media, text you, or email you to collect unpaid bills.
A recent change in rules by the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) allows debt collectors to contact you by direct message on social networks, email, or text message. The debt collectors cannot post in public places, however, such as your Facebook wall. While getting a direct message on Twitter or a message on Facebook Messenger sounds bad, the rules come with steep limits.
Social Network and Email Limits Will Protect You
That’s partly because most social networks, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram already make it hard to direct message (DM) a stranger by default. Unless you open DMs on Twitter, only people you follow can send you messages. Facebook all but hides messages sent from strangers. Instagram has similar rules, and so on.
So naturally, the workaround is to befriend a person on a social network. But the new rules account for that idea. If a debt collector wants to friend you on a social network, they must use their real name, and they must clearly identify themselves as a debt collector.
So as long as you keep your DM’s closed and don’t accept or follow strangers (especially anyone labeling themselves as a debt collector) you won’t get these DMS.
Emails are tricky, as you can’t so easily prevent anyone from emailing you. But most email services provide spam detection, and that may automatically clean out the debt collector messages. Additionally, you can create filters to delete them automatically. And at this point, most people are “trained” to deal with unwanted emails. For those reasons alone, email may not be all that tantalizing an option.
Is That Text Message a Scam or a Debt Collector?
Text messages, on the other hand, offer few of those protections. That much is evident by the scourge of scam text messages that have hit people in recent times. Few carriers and apps offer spam text detection and deletions, and the few that do often rely on self-reporting, similar to phone call spam apps. And at least with spam calls, you can just ignore the call.
That leaves you without a way to block debt collectors from contacting you, and a difficult problem. How do you tell the difference between a scam text message that isn’t legitimate at all, a debt collection message for a debt you already paid off, and a debt collection message for a debt you owe?
Unfortunately, all three are scenarios that people regularly field. Debt collectors aren’t perfect and often try to collect on a debt that isn’t legitimate, either because it’s a paid debt or the details are wrong, and someone else owes the debt.
When you get a phone call, you can at least try to set the record straight. But text messages won’t solve a problem so quickly. You could block the number used for text messages, but anyone who has dealt with scam phone calls can attest that it’s not a great solution. Whether it’s a scammer or a legitimate debt collector, they can always contact you from yet another phone number.
You Can Opt-Out
The silver lining here is that the updated rules require debt collectors to provide you a way to opt-out of further messages, whether from email, text message, or direct message. You may have to call or email the debt collector to opt-out, though; they don’t have to provide it in text or social networks directly. Even if they do, it can be through a text message service that charges a fee—so long as the money doesn’t go straight to the debt collector.
Unsurprisingly, consumer privacy advocates don’t like the rule changes. Consumer Reports already created a petition seeking to overturn the rules. But unless that happens, we will soon live in a world where you need to double-check that that “obvious spam and scam” text isn’t actually a legitimate “attempt to collect a debt.”