from the man
As computers become more important in tracking our finances and
"lifestyle selections" for marketers and bureaucrats,
the boundaries of our personal lives move closer. We are prodded,
targeted, surveyed and analyzed to a point where our lives become
the sum of our statistics. The depth of the databases has grown
to the point where a 1994 Harris poll found that 8 in 10 Americans
believed they had lost control over information about them. Nowadays
that number is certainly higher.
"Privacy is the right
to one's personality," Louis Brandeis wrote back in the
Nineties the 1890s and Judge Thomas Cooley added
about the same time that "privacy is the right to be let
alone." These days it's more than that: It's the right to
be considered a citizen before they notch you off as a "consuming
unit." It's the right to exist outside of some database.
It's the right not to be manipulated, coerced or ripped off because
someone sold your personal security like teenagers dealing gum
According to the Direct Marketing
Association, more than 65 percent of the nation's major retailers
use database marketing programs. Because marketers collect information
in many ways, it's impossible to take your name and personal
information completely out of circulation. "We continually
betray secrets about ourselves, and these secrets are systematically
collected by the marketers' intelligence network," writes
Erik Larson in The Naked Consumer, his account of the privacy
In his book, Larson describes
how we are monitored. You may reveal some bit of information
about yourself your home address or phone number on a
contest entry at the grocery store and think nothing of
it. But marketers use this information to compile complex profiles.
Larson offers four laws of data in his book, and they're on the
money. First, "data must seek and merge with complementary
data" that is, everything you reveal may be used
against you. Second, "data always will be used for purposes
other than originally intended." Third, "data collected
about individuals will be used to cause minor or major harm to
one or more members of the group who provided the information."
Finally, "confidential information is confidential only
until someone decides it's not."
That sounds grim, but you
can lower your profile. Doing so can reduce your chances of being
conned or targeted for sales pitches, and help you retain some
sense that you have your own business left to mind. Read on for
Find out what the Man knows.
ever applied for a credit card or received a bank loan, you have
a credit report. Lenders, among others, use these reports to
determine if you can be trusted. Some analysts estimate that
50 percent of the reports on file with the major credit bureaus
have incorrect information.
The information in your report
is available to anyone with a "legitimate business need,"
including landlords, employers and insurers. The bureaus also
sell information about you to marketers (see below for more on
that). The first step is to order your credit reports. Not only
is it a good idea to make sure the information is correct, but
crooks rely on the fact that most people don't check their reports
until they have problems. A new law requires the three major
credit reporting agencies to each provide one free credit report per year to anyone who
The credit bureaus realize
the value of the information they've gathered. They mine some
information from your reports to create other databases. Equifax,
for example, maintains a database that the insurance industry
uses for claim histories. You can obtain a copy of your report
by sending your name, address, driver's license number, date
of birth, telephone number and signature to:
Insurance Consumer Center
P.O. Box 105108
Atlanta, GA 30348-5108
Phone: (800) 456-6004
Cost: $5 to $8 (varies by state)
used by the insurance industry is maintained by the non-profit
Medical Information Bureau, which stores information about the
health conditions of more than 12 million residents of the U.S.
and Canada. MIB will search their records for $8. You must download
and submit Disclosure Form D-2. You won't have a MIB record
unless you have applied for individual life, disability or health
insurance or received benefits from subscribing companies within
the past seven years. If you do have a MIB record, it's important
to make sure that the information is accurate. Write:
P.O. Box 105, Essex Station
Boston, MA 02112
Phone: (617) 426-3660
it's a good idea to obtain a statement of earnings from the Social
Security Administration every few years to make sure it doesn't
contain errors, and that no one else is reporting income using
your Social Security number (such as would happen if someone
filed a false income tax return). The government is supposed
to send you a statement annually. If you haven't received one,
submit Form 7004 Request For Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement.
The form can be ordered by phoning (800) 772-1213, or you can
fill it out online. Once you submit your information, you
will receive a report that shows all the income you've reported,
the Social Security taxes you've paid, and an estimate of what
your benefits will be annually when you retire (yeah, right).
The Man will give you a number. Keep it safe.
of Social Security, it's a good idea to keep your number close
to the vest. It's hard to believe those nine digits can cause
so many problems, but if a crook gets it, he or she can screw
you. Consider the case of Joe W. Woods. A con man managed to
open 30 credit accounts in Joe's name, racking up at least $37,000
in charges and even using 30,000 of Joe's frequent flyer miles.
And some victims of identity theft would say Joe got off easy.
Many crooks get information
about you by digging through the garbage and pulling out credit
card receipts (why do so many stores print account numbers and
expiration dates on receipts?), bills, bank statements or pay
stubs. One gang caught in Atlanta stole more than $10 million
in 10 states by taking discarded checks, deposit slip and credit
card receipts from trash cans and using them to open fake accounts.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking my old bills to work
and shredding them.
Thwart thieves; don't carry
your SSN in your purse or wallet. Never pre-print the number
on checks, business cards, address labels or other IDs (although
some states use your SSN as your driver's license number, you
can request that it be removed). A savvy con artist who learns
your SSN could use it to open a credit card account, rent a post
office box and then apply for more accounts. Another dangerous
situation that a lot of folks don't think about are those pre-approved
credit cards applications many people pitch in the trash. What
keeps a crook from submitting it for you, but with a "new"
You'll find that many merchants
ask for your SSN when you purchase anything with a check. You
should refuse. There's no law that prevents them from asking
for the number, but there's no law that says you have to give
it. You should explain that you fear it could be used by someone
to defraud you. Usually merchants will allow you to supply another
ID number, such as a driver's license number. Chris Hibbert's
Security Number FAQ provides more information.
Passwords are another important
aspect of privacy, especially in the digital age. These combinations
of letters and numbers are like the keys to your life, especially
as we become more dependent on computers. Whether you have voice
mail, bank access or even a bike lock, you are only as secure
as your password. That's why you shouldn't use the same password
for all your accounts. Your passwords also should be easy to
remember (so you don't have to write them down) but hard to guess.
Your bank PIN number, for example, should not be taken from your
SSN, birthday, middle name, pet's name or anything else that
a crook might be able to figure out.
As for the security on your
Internet account, hackers use dictionary programs to break passwords.
For that reason, your password should not be anything you can
find in the dictionary (both English or other languages), slang
words or names or cultural icons or names such as Madonna, Goethe
or Clinton. Use a combination of letters, numerals, symbols,
punctuation and upper and lower case, and change your password
every few months, if not more frequently. If you must, use a
familiar phrase or number and then intersperse a capital letter,
a bit of punctuation and a number or odd letter to make it possible
to remember but that much more difficult for someone to guess.
You also may want to disable cookies on your browser, although
they can be convenient for personalized resources. (This site
serves a session cookie for an aggregate statistics program;
no personal data is collected.) You also can opt-out of having
information gathered about you by Google.
Step 3: When The Man comes
looking for you, hide under a rock.
hundreds of ways marketers gather information about you. You
may join a buyer's club or become a "preferred customer"
and receive discounts when you shop if the clerk scans your membership
card. That, of course, gives the retailer a chance to monitor
everything you buy. One method of getting the goods is Radio
Shack's habit of asking for your name and address whenever you
buy something. Without fail, you'll soon start getting junk mail
from Radio Shack.
Mail Preference Service
Other ways that marketers
get your name is when you fill out rebate, product registration
or warranty cards (be skeptical of cards that imply your warranty
can only be activated if you send in the survey). They also may
identify you from the phone book (a good reason to have an unlisted
number); from non-profit groups to which you donate money; from
clubs you belong to; and whenever you subscribe to magazines
or buy over the phone from catalogs. They ask the credit reporting
bureaus for the names of all new card holders, since you're likely
to be in a spending mood. Marketers also rely on public records
such as marriage, birth, property and, until September 1997,
motor vehicle records (that's when a law went into effect closing
off public access). Many states have forms to remove your name
from the lists they sell to marketers.
You can't do much about the
National Change of Address database maintained by the post office.
Hundreds of entities, from businesses to mail order businesses
to your congressman, buy names from this database to keep their
Sweepstakes are another method
that salespeople use to get your name and personal data. Beyond
the highly visible ones like Publisher's Clearinghouse, you often
see cardboard drop boxes by the cash registers offering you a
chance to win a trip to a sunny spot. They may have a drawing
only once every five years. In the meantime, they collect names
and follow up with phone solicitations, since you've "expressed
interest" in package vacations (free ones, anyway). Never
enter these type of contests you can only lose. In all
likelihood you'll end up on a list aimed at "opportunity
seekers," known in the business as "sucker lists."
(My mother sent for one of those "envelope stuffing"
kits and got deluged with similar offers within weeks.)
An ominous development during
the past few years has been the encroachment of marketers on
cyberspace. A company called Email America once used a program
to gather the online addresses of 20 million people who used
any of thousands of Usenet discussion groups. The firm offered
this list to marketers in chunks of five million names for $99.
Another firm, The Marketry, compiled 250,000 e-mail addresses
per month from Internet discussion groups, then organized them
into categories like pets, science, computers, etc. To circumvent
the e-mail advertisers, many people use filtering programs and
or create a separate e-mail account to post to Usenet or other
public forums. Never reply to spammers who promise to remove
your name from their lists if you respond. Your response verifies
that the account is active, and you'll probably invite even more
unwanted mail. One service that blocks spam with a "challenge-response"
system is Spam
Arrest (prices start at $3.95 per month).
You can write marketers by
snail mail and ask that your name be removed from their solicitation
lists. A good strategy is to save the junk mail you get to make
sure that any variations of your name or address are included.
A first step is to contact the Direct Marketing Association.
By sending your name and address, you'll be added to a list of
people who don't want to receive junk mail. This list is honored
by most large marketers, although you also should read this
reality check before getting your hopes up. For what it's
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008
will be removed for five years from the lists of companies that
use the DMA "opt-out" list. (For more information see
Junk Mail). Most if not all large marketers subscribe to
the DMA "opt-out" service. Here is contact information
for two other list compilers:
Consumer Response Center
26955 Northwestern Highway
Southfield, MI 48034-8455
You can also
write to be taken off many telemarketer's lists. Send your name,
address and telephone number to:
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014
phone you, tell them politely that you want to be placed on their
"don't call list." A federal law (Title 47, subsection
227 of the U.S. Code) requires them to do so. The 1991 Telephone
Consumer Protection Act also made auto-dialers, junk faxes and
prerecorded sales pitches illegal. You can sue telemarketers
who violate the TCPA for $500 per violation. All you have to
do is keep records of the date and time of the repeat call(s).
A handful of vigilante consumers have earned a few grand of spending
cash this way.
Many marketers obtain your
phone number from the white pages. If you can't afford an unlisted
number, ask the phone company to not list your street address.
Or put a fake name such as E. Presley with your number. That
way you'll know any mail with that name is junk without even
And don't forget the credit
bureaus, which sell the personal data they collect for your credit
reports (but not your financial information). When you receive
your reports, there should be a section that lists all the companies
that have requested your name and address to solicit you. You
can prevent anyone but the bureau from having your name by asking
each not to sell your personal data. Phone 888-567-8688 and you
should be removed from the marketing lists at all three.
A few consumers who are annoyed
that marketers sell their personal data are fighting back. Ram Avrahami,
who lives outside Washington, D.C., sued U.S. News & World
Report for renting his name to Smithsonian. Ram says the magazine
makes money off his name (8 cents per rental) without his permission,
and he cited a Virginia law originally intended to ban unauthorized
use of celebrities' names for advertising or commercial purposes.
In California, Robert Beken
took Computer City to court after he wrote a "contract"
on the back of his check that said, "By accepting this check,
Computer City agrees not to send me any mail." When the
store did, he sued.
If you'd like to learn more
about how to protect your privacy, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Another excellent
source on the battle over privacy is The Naked Consumer,
by Wall Street Journal reporter Erik Larson. He provides a fascinating
account of how the government gathers and distributes data about
its citizens. That same information is manipulated by marketers.
More important, he discusses what the future holds for our fundamental
right to be let alone.
Direct Marketing Association, a leading trade group, has set
up the Mail Preference Service (MPS) to soothe irate consumers
who get sick of being buried by junk mail. Over the years, DMA
has fought government regulation of the direct marketing industry
and convinced most consumers, politicians and reporters that
writing to MPS will "get me off the junk mail lists."
Here's how its supposed to work. XYZ Company prepares to
send out its latest catalog. It rents lists of consumer names
and addresses from other catalogs, magazines and charities and
merges this data together with its existing customer list. Duplicate
entries are deleted. XYZ then checks this master list against
the MPS file and filters out any consumers who have written in
to say they dont want junk mail. Everyone from the New
York Times to Ann Landers has made MPS sound like a panacea for
junk mail haters. But thats far from the truth. Heres
is not run by DMA.
It is actually run by a faceless company on Long Island. If you
want to buy something from a catalog, you can phone an 800 number,
use a fax number or even send e-mail. If you dont want
to buy something, they arent going to make it easy. The
only way to get your name into MSAs database is to sit
down and write a letter. Once you do, DMA does not send any kind
of confirmation that it has received your request.
a fraction of marketers use the DMA list. The DMA has about 3600 members.
When you consider that 65 percent of Americas 14 million
businesses use marketing databases, that means only a tiny fraction
of mailers tap into MPS. DMA represents the most reputable direct
marketers, those firms that would be glad to take you off their
lists if you called them directly in the first place. The less
reputable mailers dont give a hoot.
members have to pay for the MPS list. DMA charges up to $600 a year
for the MPS file. Mailers are currently facing exorbitant paper
prices and a recent increase in postage. Many smaller mailers
probably are tempted to pocket the money (if any) earmarked for
The file is updated monthly, but many businesses rent the MPS
file on a quarterly basis. That means you might not see a difference
in your mail flow for three months.
January, MPS file clears out any names that have been on for
five years. That
means the consumer must renew his or her request. Do you think
DMA reminds consumers of this? Fat chance. Its not in their
best interest to have a huge no-mail list. Mail order
is, above all, a numbers game. Companies design their offers
to make a profit even if 95 percent of their mail gets thrown
in the garbage. For high-ticket items, companies can make a profit
even if 1 percent of consumers respond.
how the MPS works, there may not be any sure-fire way to avoid
junk mail. But you get rid of a lot of it. Companies, like people,
only know what you tell them.
article first appeared in my fanzine, Chip's Closet Cleaner,
"reality check" was written by an anonymous direct
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