Getting a disruptive telephone call from a creditor or collection agency at home during dinnertime is one of the most unnerving facts of modern life. The credit collection industry has grown exponentially over the last few years, and high-pressure telephone tactics such as calling up debtors when they may be home having dinner with their families is still widely practiced.
An even more disturbing debt collection practice has cropped up in the wake of the collapse of the housing and credit markets in the United States. It also involves the inopportune use of telephone calls, but the debtor is indirectly targeted. Instead of calling debtors, creditors and collection agents contact their relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even business associates. This is even more discomfiting than being interrupted at dinnertime since it has the unpleasant effect of making friends and loved ones worry about the situation at hand.
How do creditors go about contacting debtors’ associates, friends and relatives? Is this a legal practice?
Information Brokers in the 21st Century
As we bravely entered the Information Age in the previous century, we readily accepted that the easy publication and manipulation of data over computer networks would be of benefit to humanity. We were not prepared for, however, for the collection of personal data and the rise of the information broker industry.
Information brokers are enterprises dedicated to the mining and farming of publicly-available information. Many people are not aware of the depth of information that can be lawfully obtained by information brokers. Most of the time, this information is collected with the consent of consumers during a range of retail and financial transactions.
Technological advances have advanced the field of information brokerage from storage and retrieval to sophisticated data analysis. Information brokers have been plying their trade since around the 1950s; they have gone from scanning public records to actually visualizing relationships between the personally identifiable data they work with. This is legal, and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act authorizes creditors to contact third parties for the purpose of locating debtors.
Think about what happens when you join an online social network such as Facebook and you are asked permission for an application to go through your email address book to find friends. Once you confirm who your friends are, the network will learn of that relationship and feed its “graph,” which often consist of massive relational databases filled with personal information. A data aggregation firm such as ChoicePoint by Lexis-Nexis utilizes far more powerful methods to establish relationships that can be queried by information brokers and sold to creditors and collection agencies.