Debt collectors are to be banned from hounding people through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, a consumer watchdog has said.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has updated its Debt Collection Guidance to reflect new methods of communication, to prevent people suffering the "stress and embarrassment" of having their money troubles made public.
A spokesman for the OFT said that contacting debtors through social networking sites was a new take on the old method of placing a postcard through the door.
He said of contacting people through social networking sites: "It's unfair and improper and it makes that private correspondence public. It causes stress and embarrassment to the debtor. It is not good business practice to do that."
The OFT said it had so far only received a "handful" of complaints from people who had been contacted by such methods.
The spokesman said: "It is not a widespread trend. We are future-proofing the guidance. We have had a couple of complaints which we have dealt with. We will continue to monitor the market for that kind of communication."
The new guidance says debtors should not suffer "undue pressure" from creditors "posting messages on social networking sites in a way that might potentially reveal that an identifiable person is being pursued for the repayment of a debt".
The rules set out the standards expected of all businesses engaging in the recovery of consumer credit debts, including banks, law firms and tracing agents as well as traditional debt collectors.
As well as the misuse of social networking sites, other specific business practices the OFT considers to be unfair and improper include contacting debtors at unreasonable times or at inappropriate locations, for example when they are a patient in hospital.
David Fisher, the OFT's director of consumer credit, said: "In the present economic climate, with many people, including those who may be particularly vulnerable, in financial difficulties, it is crucial they are treated fairly by companies recovering their debts. This updated guidance makes clear the standards the OFT expects of all businesses involved in debt recovery, including debt collectors, banks and law firms."