St. Petersburg woman harassed by bill collector via Facebook
Unfortunately for her, those “others” include bill collectors.
Beacham, 34, of St. Petersburg, said she already had called her car finance company last summer to let people know she was on medical leave from her job, and getting a little behind on payments.
The company not only called her repeatedly to get her to pay up, she says, but it also looked at her Facebook page and found her sister and cousin.
Then the company sent Facebook messages to them, which worried the two, which led them to talk to other relatives, who got even more worried, she said.
“It was very stressful, it still is very stressful,” said Beacham. “It was humiliating.”
Beacham is suing Mark One Financial of Jacksonville seeking damages, and also seeking to prevent it from contacting “any friends and family members of the plaintiff, through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social networking sites.”
Bruce Newmark, managing director of Mark One, said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Beacham’s attorney, Billy Howard, said this is the first harassment-by-Facebook case he’s come upon. But in a social networking age, he expects to find more.
“I’ve never seen a case like this, but it’s no surprise because debt collectors are like any other business, they change according to their environment.”
Kelli Burns, assistant professor of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, said the incident “shows the dirty side of social networking. It really shows that it’s not all about having fun and connecting with your friends.”
Burns said college students have gotten the message that they shouldn’t post prankish pictures of themselves online, because one day a potential employer might run across them. But people still need to remember that posting personal information opens it to all kinds of people.
For example, she said, Facebook lets people post their birthdays and list their relatives. But birthdays and mothers’ maiden names often become online passwords, which you want to keep private.
Beacham said her problem began this summer when she took a medical leave from her job as an assistant in a chiropractor’s office. That put her a little behind on her $361.95 monthly payments on her 2006 Chrysler Sebring. She missed one payment and was going into the second when she called the company to alert them, she said.
The lawsuit says the company began calling her six to 10 times a day, and she said they once called her 35 times in a single day.
“That’s the invasion of privacy,” her attorney, Howard, said. Under Florida law, he said, “You cannot communicate or contact anybody with such frequency as to be considered harassing.”
Howard handles debt collection complaints for the “consumer protection division” of the Morgan & Morgan law firm. He said he looks at more than 100 such complaints every week, and “we handle hundreds of cases in litigation at a time.” He said the weak economy has aggravated the situation.
The person who contacted Beacham’s relatives on Facebook used the name “Jeff Happenstance” and left a phone number for the company, according to the lawsuit. Another time, someone texted her, urging her to call “Supervisor Dufffus.”
Debt collectors are allowed to contact relatives if they are simply trying to find a debtor, said Anne Marie Millet, an investigator with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services. But Beacham said Mark One already was well-aware of how to contact her.
For its part, Facebook rules prohibit using profile information for commercial purposes, including debt collection, said spokesman Barry Schnitt. He said Facebook users can go to the “Block people” function in the privacy settings to prevent unwanted contacts, and they also can press the “Report” link at various places around the site to report abuses.
Beacham said she got so upset with the calls that she has offered to let Mark One repossess her car, but Mark One has not done so. In the meantime, she said, she is still paying off the car loan, but is still a month behind.
“I feel like I was harassed,” she said. “I feel like I was treated unfairly. … Nobody should be treated by anyone the way they treated me.”