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hiding 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 cards.
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 wars.
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 more guidance.

Step 1: Find out what the Man knows.

If you've 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 asks.
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)

Another database 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:

Medical Information Bureau
P.O. Box 105, Essex Station
Boston, MA 02112
Phone: (617) 426-3660

Finally, 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).

Step 2: The Man will give you a number. Keep it safe.

Speaking 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" address?
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 Social 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.

There are 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.
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 records current.
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 worth, contact:

Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008

Your name will be removed for five years from the lists of companies that use the DMA "opt-out" list. (For more information see Reducing Junk Mail). Most if not all large marketers subscribe to the DMA "opt-out" service. Here is contact information for two other list compilers:

National Demographics & Lifestyles
Consumer Response Center
26955 Northwestern Highway
Southfield, MI 48034-8455
(800) 873-7655

You can also write to be taken off many telemarketer's lists. Send your name, address and telephone number to:

Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014

If telemarketers 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 opening it.
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.

reality check The 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 it’s 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 don’t want junk mail. Everyone from the New York Times to Ann Landers has made MPS sound like a panacea for junk mail haters. But that’s far from the truth. Here’s why:

1. MPS 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 don’t want to buy something, they aren’t going to make it easy. The only way to get your name into MSA’s 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.

2. Only a fraction of marketers use the DMA list. The DMA has about 3600 members. When you consider that 65 percent of America’s 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 don’t give a hoot.

3. DMA 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 MPS.

4. MPS is slow. 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.

5. Every 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. It’s 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.

Considering 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.

This article first appeared in my fanzine, Chip's Closet Cleaner, Issue 13.
"reality check" was written by an anonymous direct marketing employee

Links: How to Be Invisible (book),
Opt-Out of Online Ad Networks (service)

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