TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The next time you get a friend request on social media and don’t recognize the name, be careful. It could be a debt collector.

New debt collection rules went into effect this week and have expanded the ways collection companies can hunt down debtors. The new rules, changed by federal regulators, mean collectors can now pursue you through text messages, emails and social media sites.

That could be bad news for a growing number of Americans. At the end of the third quarter this year, 77.6 million consumers had at least one debt in collections with $188 billion in outstanding balances, according to a report from TransUnion.

If you’re contacted on your social media account, the message has to be private. The debt collectors can’t post something that is viewable by the general public or by your friends or followers.

The new rule has been in the works for over a year, but it just went into effect this week. The debt collector must be up front about who they are and what they want and must include a way to opt-out of receiving additional messages.

Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate at US PIRG, says he believes this rule opens the door for unscrupulous debt collectors.

“About half of all contacts about debt collectors, according to complaint lists at the CFBP and the FTC are not about you, they’re about somebody else or about a debt that has been paid or is no longer due,” he said.

Mierzwinski recommends you not respond to social media messages, and research your debt before paying.
In some cases, the statute of limitations may have run out, but if you pay – even a small amount – you restart the clock.

The key, of course, is to try to not let your debt get this far. Try to get on a payment plan before a bill is turned over to collections. If you have debt you truly owe and you want to stop creditors from contacting you on social media, consider negotiating.

A collector will often take much less, if you’re willing to pay that amount up front.