By TAMARA LUSH
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 3:39 PM
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A Florida judge has ordered a debt collection agency to not use Facebook or any other social media site in an attempt to locate a woman over a $362 unpaid car loan.
Judge W. Douglas Baird also ordered Mark One Financial LLC of Jacksonville, Fla. to refrain from contacting the woman's family or friends on Facebook.
The order is part of a lawsuit that Melanie Beacham filed last August against the debt collection agency. According to court documents, Beacham said Mark One sent messages to her and her family on the Facebook networking site to have her call the agency about the debt.
Billy Howard, the woman's attorney with the Morgan and Morgan law firm in Tampa, said the debt collectors violated Beacham's privacy. He said they also violated a provision of Florida's consumer protection law that prohibits debt collectors from harassing people.
Howard said that in the past four months, nearly a dozen potential clients have contacted him because debt collectors have used social media sites to track them down.
"It's the beginning of an epidemic," Howard said, calling it "another weapon" debt collectors can use.
Beacham's claims 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, according to court documents.
Mark One did not return a message Wednesday from The Associated Press.
Last November, the agency said it would not discuss Beacham's case and denied any wrongdoing. The company acknowledged that its collectors use Facebook to find people when they don't respond to other means, like letters and phone calls.
Social media experts and lawyers like Howard say that debt collectors are increasingly trying new tactics to contact people who owe money.
In one Chicago case, a man was friended on Facebook by a young woman in a bikini. The account turned out to be a debt collector's, something the man realized only when the "friend" posted a message on his wall: "Pay your debts, you deadbeat."