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Personal Finance: Finding debtors on Facebook

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:44 AM

When it come to debt collectors trying to track down debtors, one might say all is fair in the world of Facebook.

At least that's how things went for one Florida woman who is suing a debt collection company for sending her messages on Facebook about a $362 car loan debt. She's also upset the company contacted family members in an effort to get them to have her call the agency.

As the Associated Press reported, the collection agency, Mark One, used Melanie Beacham's Facebook profile to reach out to her. Beacham was not too pleased about this. Her lawsuit claims that Mark One contacted her six to 10 times a day by phone, sent her a text message, contacted her neighbor and sent a courier to deliver a letter to her workplace.

"It's an invasion of privacy on steroids," said Billy Howard, Beacham's attorney.

Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.) have proposed legislation to stop online harassment by debt collectors. Some of its provisions include prohibiting debt collectors from seeking arrest warrants to collect on debts and increasing penalties on debt collectors who break the law to discourage them from employing bad practices.

"Unscrupulous debt collectors are using every tool at their disposal to make a buck, sometimes targeting the wrong person, going after debts that have already been collected, or harassing family members," Franken said in a release about the legislation. The legislation doesn't specifically prevent creditors from finding people on Facebook.

So what's my take?

If the debt collection agency used Facebook to harass the Florida woman, the company should be punished. However, if the company simply used its smarts to track down a debtor that truly owed the money, I can't fault them for that.

There is no question that there are some unsavory, sleazy, nasty collection agencies out there. I would not help them collect a penny. But there are also people running from their debts or ignoring them. That's not right either. And if you put your business on Facebook, chronicling every trifling detail of your life, then hey, you open yourself up to being tracked down.

That's what I think. What about you? This week's Color of Money Question: Should debt collection companies be able to use social media sites such as Facebook to track down debtors? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com and put "Finding Debtors on Facebook" in the subject line.

The Little Faces of Foreclosure

It shouldn't surprise anyone that children are being adversely affected by foreclosures.

A report by First Focus and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth found 40 percent of U.S. school districts cite foreclosure as the top reason for the surge in homeless students, reports Post writer Dina ElBoghdady.

"Kids often express a feeling of powerlessness," says Mindy Thiel, a private therapist. "Even five year olds conceptually get the loss and they get extremely sad and frustrated that they can't do anything to change the situation. The longer the foreclosure process drags on, the more likely children are to lapse into hopelessness and internalize feelings of insecurity that can linger into adulthood."

Foreclosures will likely affect more than 20 million Americans in 2010, according to First Focus group.

Online Chat and Text Today

Join me today at 11:45 am ET for my live video chat. I will discuss some of your money questions and give my two cents on the latest financial news.

You can send your questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com.

After that, open another tab because at noon ET my online text chat begins. My guest today will be Zac Bissonnette, author of "Debt Free U: Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents." He will discuss ways to pay for college now so you won't have to deal with the debt later.

Send your comments in early or read the transcript later.

The American Dream Dashed

This economy has seen so many people stumble. Not too long ago, 50-year-old Chrissanda Walker was a nursing home executive making $100,000 a year. Now she's unemployed and staring poverty in the face.

The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest in 50 years, reports the Post's Wil Haygood.

Walker is the face of many Americans who were living the American Dream one day, only to find they were in a nightmare once they lost their jobs. Haygood's piece on Walker is a reminder to us all to be grateful for what we have.

"I never thought this would happen to me," Walker told Haygood.

The Fort Myers resident now supplements her income by selling dinners to nearby businesses.

Debt-Free Living

One way to hold on to the American Dream is to live as debt-free as possible. If that's the life you want, than join my Debt Defeater's club.

Tell me how you successfully eliminated a hefty debt load and I will give you a shout out on my live video chat.

Send your debt defeater story to colorofmoney@washpost.com and put "Debt Defeaters" in the subject line. Be sure to include how much you paid off and a statement expressing how good it feels to be debt free.

Responses to Stand By Your Man (or Woman)

For last week's Color of Money question, I wanted to know: How far would you go to protect your spouse if he or she was accused of a financial crime?

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife Leslie were arrested and charged with destruction of property after Leslie Johnson allegedly flushed a $100,000 check down the toilet and reportedly stuffed $79,600 dollars into her bra.

So how far would you go for your honey? Not far, according to the majority of responses.

Erica of Pittsburgh, Pa. wrote: "If my spouse would participate in unethical behavior, it would be a betrayal that would lead to the demise of the relationship."

"I would help him find an excellent defense attorney and exercise spousal privilege and not cooperate with the police, but I would absolutely not help him cover his crime up or become an accomplice before or after the fact," says Cherie Halyard of Fairfax, Va. "That is foolish, and no amount of love or commitment in a marriage is worth my going to jail or being punished for someone else's foolishness."

"Standing by your man while he's being dishonorable and stupid does not mean I'm willing to go down with him," says JoAnn Garvin of Phoenix, Ariz.

"The year I married my husband, I heard stories about the accountant who did his taxes and cut corners," one reader wrote. "I told him I wouldn't sign a joint return if he insisted on using that guy. I know a lot of people think 'everyone does it,' but I value my conscience and being able to sleep nights. And sure enough, one of our friends who used the same tax preparer was audited a few years later and ended up owing back taxes and huge penalties."

"This piece just shows how greed can get the best of anyone," said R. Cardona of Loveland, Ohio. "That is why people with good incomes commit these types of crimes. It is not about the money. It is about the power and the excitement."

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to singletarym@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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