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Shaming and blaming Charles Mabbett
15 November 2017


Should a business use social media to shame scam artists, shoplifters or bad debtors? When someone feels ripped off, this appears a natural course of action but it is a risky path to go down. Our advice is if you believe you have evidence that a crime has been committed, contact Police.

One business recently posted personal information on Facebook about someone whom it accused to trying to scam it out of several hundred dollars’ worth of products. The information published online included the man’s driver licence, a bounced cheque and a security camera photo. The business said its intention was to warn other businesses of what the man had done.

When the man discovered what the business had done, he complained to our office. He described his devastation at being publicly shamed on the business’ Facebook page. He lived in a small community and word quickly spread as the post received more than 17,000 likes and attracted dozens of comments about his colourful past. As a result, he and his family had to endure abuse from others in the community. He said his anxiety and depression were triggered because of the Facebook post and online comments and he wanted more than $50,000 in compensation.

Our investigation

We contacted the business to get its response. The business owner explained the events that motivated the Facebook post. The man had arrived and purchased several hundred dollars’ worth of goods but did not have the cash to pay for them. He offered to pay by cheque and refused to leave without the products because he had driven four hours from his home to obtain them. The business owner said the man told him to make a copy of his driver licence and gave his permission to report him to Police if his cheque was dishonoured. They came to an agreement that the man could take half the goods with him. The business would send him the remaining goods after the cheque cleared.

The cheque bounced. The business owner tried calling the man but his phone was switched off. He left several messages but the man never returned his calls. The owner googled the man’s name and discovered he was well known in his area for his scams. The owner wanted other retailers to be aware of the man’s actions and he posted the man’s personal details on the Facebook page. The owner said within an hour, his business was receiving messages and phone calls sharing similar stories about the man’s past behaviour.

Later that day, the business received Facebook messages from the man’s son asking it to remove the post. The owner said he would delete the post and withdraw his Police report if the outstanding sum was paid. After about four hours, even though no payment was received, the owner took down the post. He received a phone call from the man saying he would make an online payment if the business posted an apology. The business owner complied with the apology but no payment arrived.

Principle 11

The owner explained he had relied on principle 11(e)(i) of the Privacy Act to disclose the man’s information on the business’ Facebook page. Principle 11(e)(i) says an agency may disclose personal information to avoid prejudice to the maintenance of the law by a public sector agency including the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution and punishment of offences.

We acknowledged the man’s actions affected the business financially but principle 11(e)(i) is more usually applied to allow disclosures from businesses to public sector law enforcement agencies, to allow them to do something about the alleged offending. In this case the business had no role in the “maintenance of the law”, and was communicating to the whole world, not just a public sector agency with law enforcement responsibilities. 

The owner said he also relied on principle 11(f)(i) to disclose the man’s information. Principle 11(f)(i) says an agency may disclose personal information if it is necessary to lessen a serious threat to public health or safety. We were not satisfied the man’s actions met the definition of a serious threat.

Acting in good faith

However, while we were not satisfied the business could disclose the man’s personal information on these two grounds, we decided the man had not acted in good faith during the investigation process. He did not pay for the goods he had taken, nor did he return the goods he took. He also failed to provide us with sufficient evidence for us to be able to assess whether or not he had experienced harm as a result of the Facebook post, despite wanting over $50,000 compensation.

We decided it was not appropriate for us to take any further action. Acting in good faith is an important part of participating in our complaints process. It was our view the man fell short of engaging with our office in an open, honest and transparent way and we concluded the complaint by closing the file.

Image credit: Orb weaver spider via Max Pixel


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