Fort Simpson's Senga Services outs overdue customers on Facebook
'If I were struggling to pay bills, I wouldn't want my community knowing,' says frustrated resident
UPDATE: The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has asked Senga Services to take down the Facebook posts naming customers. Read our story here.
A cable company in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is facing vitriol and frustration after publicly posting the names of customers in arrears on Facebook, but a company spokesperson says the strategy is legal — and working.
Senga Services first posted the list of overdue customers to its company Facebook page Monday evening. Jennifer Simons, who works with Senga Services, then posted the list to a number of community Facebook pages.
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The list includes customers' names, as well as the amount due, ranging from $94.25 to $1,406.80.
Reaction to the post was swift. It was taken down from some community pages. Where it stayed online, residents angrily commented on the strategy's ethics and possible illegality.
Connor Gaule, an administrator of the popular Fort Simpson Bulletin Board page, took the post down immediately.
"I thought that it was kind of illegal for her to be posting the people in arrears," he said. "And there's better ways to go about it. Especially on social media, where half the people on that list are elders that don't have access to that."
Gaule said that since he has begun administrating the page, which posts announcements about community events, workshops and recreational activities, he has never seen another post cause the same negative reaction as that of Simons.
"Not at all," he said. "This is the first time."
'I don't think businesses should be able to do that'
Michelle Léger, a Fort Simpson resident studying in Fort Smith, said the post "just wasn't right."
"If I had been a person on that list, I would have been really embarrassed," she said. "It's publicly shaming people. That's kind of abusive to your customer base."
The issue, said Léger, is compounded in small communities like Fort Simpson, which has a population of 1,200.
"Everybody knows who owes money to a cable company," she said. "So we know who is irresponsible with money or who might be struggling. If I were struggling to pay bills, I wouldn't want my community knowing."
Simons said she wasn't surprised by the negative reaction to her post, saying it's difficult to collect bills in a small community.
"We know everybody, so we give people a chance," she said. "It's the people who dodge us on a regular basis who are the ones being shamed."
Since posting the list Monday night, Simons said four people have come forward and paid their bills, while others have called to arrange to do the same.
Privacy, confidentiality key legal issues
"I did speak with them," he said. "I said: 'I'm not embarrassed, but it would be nice if you had contacted me individually.' They thought that was one of the options available to them, but there's got to be an issue of confidentiality."
Simons said she looked into issues surrounding the legality of publicly posting names, speaking to lawyers before doing so. According to her, it's fine to publish a person's name and amount owed, but "you cannot put a SIN number, a birth date, an address or anything else identifying the specifics of a person."
According to Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, organizations may disclose personal information of an individual without their consent if "the disclosure of the information is necessary in order to collect a debt owed to the organization."
Some government organizations, including the Fort Simpson Town Council and City of Yellowknife, publicly post the names of people in arrears.
CBC North spoke with multiple lawyers who were unable to confirm the legality of Simons's post at the time of publication, with more than one speculating that it was a "legal grey area."
However, legal or not, Léger said there are far better ways to collect.
"We live in a small town," she said. "Everyone knows where everybody lives. You could go to their house and ask them, you could call, email. There's lots of other ways."
With files from Sara Minogue