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A reader, Joanne, wrote to us concerned because a debt collector had sent a fax to her employer, and right at the top of the fax was her Social Security number, available to anyone who happened to grab it from the fax machine. Here’s what she asked:

Can the debt collection agency send a fax to my employer disclosing my Social Security number on an unsecure fax line inquiring … to fill in employment information about me? I feel violated that they exposed my SSN publicly.

At our request, she sent a copy of the document, and we showed it to Troy Doucet, a consumer protection lawyer who practices in Ohio.

He discussed debt collector letters with us, and indicated placing a Social Security number on a fax is only one potential problem. There could be other concerns that are far more serious.

Can They Do That? 

Debtors are often confused about what collectors can and can’t say to others about their debts, including their employer. The good news is that federal law restricts debt collectors’ contact with third parties.

Doucet said in an email, “a debt collector may only contact employers, family, or friends for the purpose of locating the debtor, and is prohibited under the FDCPA from conveying information that would indicate the purpose of the communication is to collect a debt.” The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is designed to protect consumers from abusive, deceptive or unfair practices by debt collectors.

The first page of the fax requested job title, dates of employment and address of the employer. Such an inquiry, if it were a genuine effort to locate Joanne, or if she had a judgment against her, would likely be perfectly legal and appropriate. However, without a legal judgment, the request goes beyond what is likely allowed under the FDCPA because it is asking for more than just her personal contact information. Nevertheless, an employer is not required to respond to a faxed request for information.

Are They For Real?

The second page of the fax raises some concerns because it uses language that is often used by scammers to scare consumers into paying debts they may not owe. It lists a “case number” and a message.

“This Law Office is investigating [consumer name redacted] on pending charges out of [consumer’s County]. Please complete & return promptly. We also would like a copy provided to [consumer].” That is, the fax also asks the employer to share the letter with the alleged debtor, which may be an illegitimate effort to pressure the debtor into paying.

While an effort to locate a debtor is legitimate, “a ruse to put pressure on the debtor to pay the bill” would not be, Doucet said. Even if the person had a lawsuit pending against them, the code does not allow a collector to inform the employer of that, he said. Further, the FDCPA prohibits collectors from misrepresenting the nature and status of the debt. By referring to vague “pending charges,” the collector may be breaking the law.

Protecting Your SSN

Returning to Joanne’s worry about her Social Security number, she is right to be concerned. In an age where identity theft is common, it’s wise to be sure you keep personal data secure. Doucet said the determination of the number being exposed “publicly,” may depend on whether the fax machine’s location was in a common or private area of the office. “If public, that may support the notion that the fax is just designed to improperly pressure the debtor to pay a debt rather than genuinely find them,” he said. “However, if the employer gave that number to the collector in a bona fide effort to identify the debtor, then it may be a proper fax. Further, if the debt collector has an actual legal judgment against the debtor issued by a court, then a private fax to an employer, even with identifying information, may be permissible.”

Or it may not be. If Joanne suspects the collector may be acting illegally, it would be wise for her to talk with a consumer law attorney in her state, or consider filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

And she should also check her credit reports (you can get a free annual credit report from all three credit bureaus) to be sure that the disclosure of her Social Security number has not resulted in misuse of her personal data to obtain credit. She should dispute any information that appears to be inaccurate. And it would also be a good idea to keep an eye on her credit scores as well. (You can get two of your credit scores for free from Credit.com.) Any large, unexplained change there could also point to potential misuse of her Social Security number.

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