Hiding From the Man and Ridding Yourself of Junk

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 eight in 10 Americans believed they had lost control over how information about them was used."Privacy is the right to one's personality," wrote Louis Brandeis back in 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. In early 1996, the U.S. Postal Rate Commission lowered the cost of sending third and fourth-class mail (now called "Standard Class"), which makes sending large quantities of junk even more attractive. Because marketers collect information about us in many ways, it's probably 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 his book, "The Naked Consumer," an account of the privacy wars. Even if you are able to resist letting your name into circulation, mail addressed to "occupant" or "resident" will still arrive, and just about anytime you buy something over the phone you're added to a new list.In his book, Larson makes a great observation about how we are monitored. You may reveal some small bit of information about yourself -- your home address or phone number on a sweepstakes entry at the grocery store -- and think nothing of it. But with the increasing power of computers and the desire of marketers to compile complex "profiles" to predict consumer buying habits, that information can easily be combined with other info. 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." And finally, "confidential information is confidential only until someone decides it's not."That sounds grim, but you can take steps to lower your public profile. Doing so can reduce your chances of being conned or targeted for sales pitches considerably, and help you retain some sense that you have your own business left to mind.Step 1:Find out what The Man knowsIf you've ever applied for a credit card or gotten a bank loan (including a student loan), you have a credit report. Banks and credit card companies, among others, use these reports to determine if you're someone they should trust. Unfortunately, some analysts estimate that 50 percent of reports on file with the three major credit bureaus have incorrect information. The information in your credit report is available to anyone with a "legitimate business need," including landlords, employers and insurers. The credit bureaus also sell information about you to marketers, an issue we'll address later. First, you should order your credit reports. Not only is it a good idea to make sure the information is correct, crooks rely on the fact that most people don't check their reports until they have problems. Although two of the three bureaus charge a small fee, you can get a free copy if you've been denied credit within the past 60 days.To get a copy of your report, send a letter that contains your full name (first, middle, last), any generational indicator (Jr., Sr., 2nd, etc.), your spouse's name (if applicable), your present home address, a daytime phone number, your previous home address(es) during the past five years, your Social Security number, your date of birth, and a copy of a bill or driver's license that contains your name and current address for verification. Be sure to sign your request. You should receive your report in about two weeks. The companies provide forms to challenge errors (my credit report, for instance, included some of my father's credit cards). Here are the major credit bureaus:TRWP.O. Box 8030Layton, UT 84041-8030Phone: (800) 682-7654Cost: free annuallyEquifaxP.O. Box 105873Atlanta, GA 30348Phone: (800) 685-1111Cost: $3 to $8 (phone first, varies by state)Trans-UnionP.O. Box 390Springfield, PA 19064Phone: (800) 916-8800Cost: $3 to $8 (phone first, varies by state)The credit bureaus realize the value of the information they've gathered, and they use it to compile other databases. The $1.5 billion company Equifax, for instance, 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:EquifaxInsurance Consumer CenterP.O. Box 105108Atlanta, GA 30348-5108(800) 456-6004Cost: $5 to $8 (phone first, 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 some 12 million Americans. MIB will search their records for $8. You must write first and request Disclosure Form D-2. You won't have a MIB record unless you have applied for individual insurance -- life, disability or health -- or received benefits from subscribing insurance 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 BureauP.O. Box 105, Essex StationBoston, MA 02112(617) 426-3660Finally, 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). To receive a statement, you need to submit Form 7004 Request For Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement. The form can be ordered by calling Uncle Sam at (800) 772-1213. Once you submit the form, you will receive a nifty report that shows all the income you've reported year by year, the Social Security 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 great idea to keep your number close to the vest. It's hard to believe these innocuous nine digits can cause so many problems, but if a crook gets it, he or she can screw you. Consider the case of a guy named 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.A lot of 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 last year 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. Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking my old bills to work and shredding them. Because your wallet or purse could easily get stolen, don't carry your SSN with you. Never pre-print your number on checks, business cards, address labels or other IDs (although some states use your SSN as your driver's license number). A savvy con artist who learns your SSN can 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 junk mail 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 set up a massive fraud, and that the card itself states clearly on it, "Not to be used for identification purposes." Usually merchants will allow you to supply another ID number, such as a driver's license number.You can get more detailed information about SSNs by pointing your Web browser to http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/privacy/ssn/ ssn-privacy or sending the e-mail message "send usenet-by-hierarchy/news/answers/ privacy/ssn-faq"to mail-server@rtfm.mit. edu.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 should also be easy to remember (so you don't have to write them down) but hard to guess (for obvious reasons). 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 at least 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.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" who gets discounts when you shop if the clerk scans your membership card. That, of course, gives the retailer a chance to monitor your tastes and spending patterns. One really annoying method of getting the goods is Radio Shack's habit of asking for your name and address whenever you buy something at their stores. I always refuse, since they only need it to send you junk mail. Even some retailers who offer toll-free 800 order numbers used a system called Automatic Number Identification (ANI) to get the phone number you were calling from. Until the FCC cracked down on this in 1995, they could then sell your number to other marketers.Other ways that marketers get your name is when you fill out rebate, product registration or warranty cards (many of which offer absolutely no benefit -- be very skeptical of registration cards that imply your warranty can only be activated if you send in their consumer survey). They may also 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 unions for the names of all new credit 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 13, 1997, motor vehicle records (that's when a new law goes into effect that closes off public access to this information). 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. Until recently, you could pay three bucks and get a copy of anyone's new address yourself.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 small boxes by the cash registers in businesses offering you a chance to win a trip to some sunny spot. Of course, they may only have a drawing once every five years. In the meantime, they collect all the names and follow up with phone solicitations, since you've "expressed interest" in travel and package vacations. Never enter these type of contests -- you can only lose by ending up on a list aimed at "opportunity seekers," known in the business as "sucker lists."(My mother sent for one of those "envelope stuffing" info kits and got deluged with similar offers within weeks.)An ominous development during the past year has been the encroachment of marketers on cyberspace. A company called e-mail America, for instance, 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 of Bellevue, Washington, did much the same thing, compiling 250,000 e-mail addresses per month from Internet discussion groups, then organizing them for salespeople into categories like pets, science, computers, etc. Not much you can do about that but stay offline and protest to any companies that try to profit from e-mail addresses.You can write marketers directly and ask that your name be removed from their solitication 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 (I've received mail as Chip Rowe, Charles Rowe and C. Rowe). A first step is to write 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 should read Aunt Minnie's reality check on page 47. For what it's worth, contact:Mail Preference ServiceP.O. Box 9008Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008You can also write to be taken off many telemarketer's lists. Send your name, address and telephone number to:Telephone Preference ServiceP.O. Box 9014Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014If telemarketers do call 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.To cover all the bases, you might also want to write the following marketers:National Demographics & LifestylesList Order Department1621 18th St., Suite 300Denver, CO 80202R. L. Polk & Co.List Compilation and Development6400 Monroe Blvd.Taylor, MI 48180-1814Donnelley MarketingDatabase Operations1235 N AvenueNevada, IA 50201-1419Metromail Corp.List Maintenance901 W. BondLincoln, NE 68521Database AmericaCompilation Department100 Paragon DriveMontvale, NJ 07645-0419Advo Inc.Director of Lists Maintenance239 W. Service Rd.Hartford, CT 06120-1280Of course, many marketers will get your address and phone number from the white pages. If you can't afford an unlisted number, ask the phone company to not list your street address in its directories. 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 actual credit 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. Most now allow you to do this over the phone. Trans Union (800-241-2858) says it will also notify its competitors, but play it safe by calling Equifax (800-219-1251) and TRW (800-353-0809) as well.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 magazine. 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. The case was thrown out of small claims court but Ram says he's going to the next level. Insiders doubt he'll win, but it's an interesting battle all the same. In California, meanwhile, 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, contact the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, or phone their privacy hotline at (619) 298-3396. Online, write prc@acusd.edu or point your World Wide Web browser to http://www.acusd.edu/~prc for more details about the topics discussed in this article. Another excellent source on the battle over privacy is Erik Larson's book, "The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities." A reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Larson provides a fascinating account of how the government gathers and distributes data about its citizens. That same information is manipulated by marketers to sell us stuff. More importantly, he discusses what the future holds for our fundamental right to be let alone.SIDEBAR:Whose Lists Are You On?Chip Rowe*From the "Lists & Databases" section of an issue of the weekly Direct Marketing News. The section describes lists of names, addresses and other info offered for sale by database brokers:* Ohio Magazine (80,000 subscriber names: "the average household income is $58,200; the average net worth is $247,800; the average investment portfolio is $120,000")* Traditional Jewish Donors (7,070 names: "individuals who have contributed to an organization that offers medical aid and financial assistance to poor Jewish families in Israel and the United States")* Jerusalem Product Gift Buyers (3,996 names: "buyers who spend an average of $35 for handcrafted gift items for bar mitzvahs and other special occasions")* Fundraising Executive Bookbuyers (13,000 names: "nonprofit organization executives who have purchased books on fundraising, direct mail or other related marketing topics")* Quality Restores Beauty (75,400 names: "individuals who have spent $49.95 to receive a furniture refinishing kit")* New Horizons: The Science and Practice of Acute Care (280 names: "hospital-based specialists who treat patients in the ICU")* Jane Tuckerâs Childrenâs Merchandise Buyers (600,000 names: "parents of children age 0-6 who have purchased products from the Jane Tucker Supermarket of Savings co-op")* Affirmative Action Coordinators at Public School Districts (4,937 names: "coordinators who supervise equal opportunity education and employment in school districts")* Amer-Hispan Consumers (709,207 names: "Hispanic consumers with demographic enhancements")* Americans for Responsible Television (188,910 names: "individuals who expressed concern about excessive violence and exploitative sex on television")*Webmasters/Internet Providers (5,000 names: "managers and developers of sites on the World Wide Web")* ABC-Agricultural Truck Owner Study (104,345 names: "farmers and ranchers with gross incomes of more than $100,000")* San Francisco Patrons of the Arts (17,946 names: "subscribers, ticket buyers and donors who support the symphonies, operas, ballets and other arts of the Bay area")* Pennsylvania Wildlife Activists (13,000 names: "contributed at least $36 because of the work this group has done to protect the stateâs environmental resources")* Men Are From Mars (32,950 names: "gathered from an infomercial, these men and women are seeking to improve their relationship with the opposite sex")* Pager/Beeper Owners File (215,000 names: "Selections include phone numbers, age, income, gender and credit card holders")* C.N.S. Marketing (9,452 names: "buyers who responded to a work-at-home offer and spent $37 for an introductory kit of Herbalife products")* Johnnie Dâs Films (62,357 names: "mostly male audience responded to a direct mail offer and purchased one or more adult videos or other adult entertainment")* Military History Buffs (184,166 names: "individuals who purchased books on strategy, military and naval campaigns and armaments thoughout the ages")* Ultra Affluent (2.4 million names: "business executives, philanthropists, socialites and professionals who have average incomes of more than $75,000")* GamePro (38,848 names: "subscribers who spend an average of $24.95 for video games")* The Christian Voice Active Donors File ("these $5-plus, 0-24 month donors supported this religious right organization led by Rev. Robert Grant")* Moral Government Fund (7,582 names: "Christian activists who support a campaign to clean up Congress and the presidency")* Donors of Compassion List (122,000 names: "individuals who contributed $25 or more to support moderate or liberal causes")* Environmental File (675,050 names: "environmental officials, executives and agencies")* Pharmacy Decision-Makers (76 names: "pharmacy decision-makers at all 50 state Medicaid agencies")* Geologists and Geophysicists (27,467 names: "geotechnical engineers and specialists in various geosciences")* New York City Gay Menâs Chorus File (8,290 names: "donors and supporters who attended many of the concert series that the chorus produces. The average ticket price was $25")* Engineers & Engineering Firms (50,780 names: "the sources for this file are directories and Yellow Pages")* Empowered Female Conservatives (51,750 names: "These individuals are active viewers of political television shows. A majority donated to the cause")

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