Saturday, November 30, 2013

You'd Better Watch Out

Dear Madame L,

I went shopping on Black Friday, and at a certain store frequented by young, stylish, waspishly thin persons of several genders, the sales clerk asked if I would like to have a special membership card, which would let me be on their list to get special e-mail notifications of sales, give me special discounts, and give me special discounts also to two or three other nationally known "hip" clothing stores.

I said sure, what did I have to tell her to get this wonder card? She wanted my address from my driver's license, then my phone number, and finally Social Security number. I balked at that and said no. Then she still wanted my e-mail address. I asked if I would receive the special e-mail notifications if I hadn't given them my Social Security number, and she said no.

So I wondered what they were going to do with all this information. It was creepy, to say the least. Can you tell me what's going on with these membership cards and all the information they want?


Spied Upon

Dear Spied Upon,

It's true, the retailers want to know everything they can about you. They want to know where you live, where you shop, what kinds of things you buy when you shop, how they can contact you, and how they can follow you from store to store sending you ads on your smart phone. And once they get as much information from you as they can, they share it with other retailers.

Madame L herself would never give any of that information to any store clerk except what is absolutely required to ensure that Madame L is the only one using her credit card and, for that matter, her name.

Madame L is proud of you for declining to accept the terms of that "special" card offer. Keep it up! Consider that, unless you're a Hollywood star or politician, you simply do not have to buy that much stuff to make it worth your while to get those "special" cards. They are not worth it.

For more information about abuses of personal information, please check the EPIC (Electronic Privacy and Information Center) web page on privacy and profiling. Here's a very small sample of the shocking information you will find there: 
Companies collect information derived from a number of resources to build comprehensive profiles on individuals in order to sell products and to sell dossiers on behavior. This is often done without notice or extending a choice to the individual to opt-out of the dossier building. These dossiers may be used by marketers for target advertising, and they may be sold to government for law enforcement purposes. Companies also "enhance" dossiers that they already own by combining or "overlaying" information from other databases. These dossiers may link individual's identities to the following attributes:
  • Social Security Number
  • Shopping preferences
  • Health information, including diet type, allergies, arthritis, incontinence/bladder problems, diabetes, hearing loss, prostate problems, and visual impairment, birth defects
  • Marital status
  • Financial situation (solvency, creditworthiness, loan amounts, credit cards)
  • Date of Birth
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Household income
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Geography
  • Physical characteristics, such as height and weight
  • Household occupants (whether an individual has children)
  • Telephone number
  • Utility usage (electric or gas usage, telephone usage, cable or satellite usage, Internet subscription, celluar phone usage)
  • Magazine subscriptions
  • Occupation
  • Level of education
  • Whether an individual is likely to respond to "money-making opportunities"
  • Congressional district
  • Size of clothes worn
  • Habits (smoking)
  • Arrest records
  • Lifestyle preferences
  • Hobbies (whether and what the individual collects)
  • Religion (affiliation and denomination)
  • Homeownership
  • Characteristics of residence (size, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, sale price, rent and mortgage payments)
  • Type of automobile owned
  • Characteristics of automobile owned (year, make, value, fuel type, number of cylinders, presence of vanity or special membership plates)
  • Whether the individual responds to direct mail solicitations
  • Contributions to political, religious, and charitable groups
  • Membership in book, video, tape, and compact disk clubs
  • Mail order purchases and type
  • Product ownership (beeper, contact lenses, electronics, fitness equipment, recreational equipment)
  • Pet ownership and type
  • Interests (including gambling, arts, antiques, astrology)
  • Book preferences
  • Music preferences
  • "Socialites"
These profiles are also indexed by other factors, such as wealth. For instance, American List Counsel sells an "ultra affluent database" that is overlaid with information on age, sex, and presence of children. The database includes the individuals' home phone numbers. Many of the "affluent persons" databases are mined from public record filings (Security and Exchange Commission, State Corporations Registration lists) where individuals are compelled by law to reveal their personal information.
Does this scare you? It should!

So do watch out. Take care, especially this holiday season. Remember, there's no deal that's worth losing your privacy or resulting in identity theft. And you probably don't need most of that stuff, anyway, and neither do the folks you're buying even more stuff for.

Happy Holidays,

Madame L

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