Thanks to WikiLeaks, We See Just How Bad the TPP Trade Deal is for Regular People

Among the many betrayals of the Obama administration is its overall treatment of what many people refer to as "intellectual property" – the idea that ideas themselves and digital goods and services are exactly like physical property, and that therefore the law should treat them the same way. This corporatist stance defies both reality and the American Constitution, which expressly called for creators to have rights for limited periods, the goal of which was to promote inventive progress and the arts.

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The Corporate Betrayal of America -- Ripping off the Public, Running off with the Profits to Avoid Taxes

Multinational corporations have built their businesses on the backs of American taxpayers. They've depended on government research, national defense, the legal and educational systems, and our infrastructure.

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Debunking Rubio's Scare Tactics on Taxes and Minimum Wage

Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave a “Republican Response” to the President’s State of the Union address. He said that taxes cause employers to reduce hours or lay people off. Others say that raising the minimum wage will mean layoffs. Let’s take a closer look at that.

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The Unbelievable Brutality Unleashed on Kids in For-Profit Prisons

Michael McIntosh couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had come to visit his son at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Miss., only to be turned away. His son wasn’t there.

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Major Scandal: There Are Unbelievable Corporate Profits Being Made, So Where Are These Promised New Jobs?

The focus on the state and federal fiscal situation has deflected attention from what should be a major scandal: the failure of big business to accelerate hiring in step with the emerging recovery in overall economic activity.

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Oceans of Blood and Profits for the Masters of War

Since there are now three conflicts in the greater Middle East; Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/"Palestine" and maybe another Lebanese war in the offing, it might be a good idea to take a look at the cost of war.

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Top Five Health Insurers Posted 56 Percent Profit Gains in 2009

If no health care overhaul passes Congress, health insurers may be in for a windfall -- and one far larger that most Americans probably realize.

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The Scandal Continues: The Billions in Govt. Cash Behind Goldman's "Profits"

Equity underwriting boomed during the period as dozens of banks raised money to strengthen capital and repay Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. The business reported record revenue of $736 million.via Article -

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Tax Evaders: Multinationals are Selling the Country Short

The biggest tax scam on earth has a very innocent sounding name. It is called "transfer prices." That almost sounds boring. It is, however, anything but boring. Abuse of transfer prices is a key tool multinational corporations use to fool the U.S. and other jurisdictions to think that they have virtually no profit; hence, they shouldn't pay any taxes.

Corporations involved in this scam are "model corporate citizens," or so they would like us to believe. The truth is that they rob us all blind. The money we lose can be estimated in the tens of billions, or possibly hundreds of billions of dollars every year. We all end up paying higher taxes because rich corporations make sure they don't.

But don't take my word for this.

A few weeks ago U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, together with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that GSK will pay $3.4 billion to the IRS to settle a transfer pricing dispute dating back 17 years. The IRS alleges that GSK improperly shifted profits from their U.S. to the U.K. entity.

And U.K. pharmaceutical companies are not alone with these kinds of problems. Merck, one of the largest U.S. drug companies, also this month disclosed that they face four separate tax disputes in the U.S. and Canada with potential liabilities of $5.6 billion. Out of that amount, Merck disclosed that the Canada Revenue Agency issued the company a notice for $1.8 billion in back taxes and interest "related to certain inter-company pricing matters."

And according to the IRS, one of the schemes Merck used to cheat American tax payers was by setting up a subsidiary in tax-friendly Bermuda. Merck then quietly transferred patents for several blockbuster drugs to the new subsidiary and then paid the subsidiary for use of the patents. The arrangement in effect allowed some of the profits to disappear into Merck's own "Bermuda triangle."

So what's going on here, how have multinational drug companies been able to gouge us for years selling expensive drugs and then avoid paying tax on their astronomical profits?

The answer is simple. For companies in certain businesses, such as pharmaceuticals, it is very easy to simply "invent" the price a company charges their for buying the company's product which they manufacture in another country. And if they charge enough, poof; all the profit vanishes from the US, or Canada, or any other regular jurisdiction and end up in a corporate tax-haven. And that means American and Canadian tax payers don't get their fair share.

Many multinational corporations essentially have two sets of bookkeeping. One set, with artificially inflated transfer prices is what they use to prepare local tax returns, and show auditors in high-tax jurisdictions, and another set of books, in which management can see the true profit and lost statement, based on real cost of goods, are used for the executives to determine the actual performance of their various operations.

Of course, not every multinational industry can do this as easily as the drug industry. It would be difficult to motivate $6,000 toilet seats. But the drug industry, where real cost of goods to manufacture drugs is usually around 5 percent of selling price, has a lot of room to artificially increase that cost of goods to 50 percent or 75 percent of selling price.

This money is then accumulated in corporate tax-havens where the drugs are manufactured, such as Puerto Rico and Ireland.Puerto Rico has for many years attracted lots of pharmaceutical plants and Ireland is the new destination for such facilities, not because of the skilled labor or the beautiful scenery or the great beer -- but because of the low taxes. Ireland has, in fact, one of the world's lowest corporate tax rates with a maximum rate of 12.5 percent.

In Puerto Rico, over a quarter of the country's gross domestic product already comes from pharmaceutical manufacturing. That shouldn't be surprising. According to the U.S. Federal Tax Reform Act of 1976, manufacturers are permitted to repatriate profits from Puerto Rico to the U.S. free of U.S. federal taxes. And by the way, the Puerto Rico withholding tax is only 10 percent.

Of course, no company should have to pay more tax than they are legally obligated to, and they are entitled to locate to any low-tax jurisdiction. The problem starts when they use fraudulent transfer pricing and other tricks to artificially shift their income from the U.S. to a tax-haven. According to current OECD guidelines transfer prices should be based upon the arm's length principle - that means the transfer price should be the same as if the two companies involved were indeed two independents, not part of the same corporate structure. Reality is that standard operating procedure for multinationals is to consistently violate this rule. And why shouldn't they? After all, it takes 17 years for them to pay up, per the GSK example above, even when they get caught.

Another industry which successfully exploits overseas tax strategies to cheat us all is the hi-tech industry. In fact, Microsoft Corp. recently shaved at least $500 million from its annual tax bill using a similar strategy to the one the drug industry has used for so many years. Microsoft has set up a subsidiary inIreland, called Round Island One Ltd. This company pays more than $300 million in taxes to this small island country with only 4 million inhabitants, and most of this comes from licensing fees for copyrighted software, originally developed in the U.S. Interesting thing is, at the same time, Round Island paid a total of just under $17 million in taxes to about 20 other countries, with more than 300 million people. The result of this was that Microsoft's world-wide tax rate plunged to 26 percent in 2004, from 33 percent the year before. Almost half of the drop was due to "foreign earnings taxed at lower rates," according to a Microsoft financial filing. And this is how Microsoft has radically reduced its corporate taxes in much of Europe and been able to shield billions of dollars from U.S. taxation.

But remember, this is only one example. Most of the other tech companies are doing the same thing. Google recently also set up an Irish operation that the firm credited in a SEC filing with reducing its tax rate.
Here's how this is done in the software industry and any other industry with valuable intellectual property. A company takes a great, patented, American product and then develops a new generation. Then, of course, the old product disappears. Some, or all, of the cost and development work for the new product takes place in Ireland, or at least, so the company claims. The ownership of the new generation product and all income from licensing can then legally be shared between the U.S. parent company and the offshore corporation or transferred outright to the tax-haven. The deal, to pass IRS scrutiny, has to be made using the "arms-length principle." Reality is that the IRS has no way of controlling all these transactions.

Unfortunately those of us working and paying tax in the U.S. can't relocate our jobs and our income to Ireland or another tax haven. So we have to make up the income shortfall. In the U.S. we have a highly educated society with a very qualified workforce, partly supported by our tax payers. This helps us generate breakthrough products. But once a company has a successful product, they have every incentive to move the second generation of a successful product overseas, to Ireland and a few other corporate tax havens.

There is only one problem for U.S. companies with this strategy, and that is that if they repatriate this money to the U.S. they have to pay full corporate taxes. In fact, according to BusinessWeek, U.S. multinational corporations have built up profits of as much as $750 billion overseas, much of it in tax havens such as the Ireland, Bahamas, and Singapore to avoid the stiff 35 percent levy they'd face if they repatriated the funds back into the U.S. But of course, Congress, which is basically paid for by our multinational corporations, generously provided for a one-time provision in the corporate tax code, so that they could repatriate profits earned before 2003, and held in foreign subsidiaries, at an effective 5.25 percent tax rate.

And so the game goes on.

In the end, multinational corporations live in a global world which allows them to pretty much send their money to corporate tax havens at will, and then repatriate this money almost tax free, with the help of the U.S. Congress.

The people left holding the bag are you and me.

Wal-Mart's Female Trouble

Wal-Mart is an unadorned eyesore surrounded by a parking lot, even its logo aggressively devoid of flourish. Proving that looks don't matter, however, the retail giant has a way with women: Four out of 10 American women visit one of Wal-Mart's stores weekly. They like the low prices, convenience and overall ease of the shopping experience. Even snobbish elites are discovering its delights: A few months ago, New York Times fashion writer Cathy Horyn revealed, to the astonishment of fellow urban fashionistas, that much of her wardrobe comes from Wal-Mart ("Marc Jacobs?" "No, it's Wal-Mart"). Retail consultant Wendy Liebmann ecstatically dubs Wal-Mart the "benchmark by which American women rate all shopping."

Would that $15 runway knockoffs were Wal-Mart's primary contribution to women's lives. But Wal-Mart is not only America's favorite shopping destination; it's also the nation's largest private employer. The majority of Wal-Mart's "associates" (the company's treacly euphemism for employees) are women. Their average wage is $7.50 an hour, out of which they must pay for their own health insurance, which is so costly that only two in five workers buy it.

Yet Wal-Mart is not only a horrifyingly stingy employer: Many workers say it is also a sexist one. From the Third World factories in which its cheap products are made, to the floor of your local Wal-Mart, where they're displayed and sold, it is women who bear the brunt of the company's relentless cost-cutting. Ellen Rosen, a resident scholar in Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Program, recently observed that around the world, Wal-Mart's business practices "may be leading to a new kind of globally sanctioned gender discrimination."

Gretchen Adams worked for Wal-Mart for 10 years, in five different states. As a co-manager, she opened 27 "Supercenters" (gargantuan, 24-hour grocery/general merchandise hybrids). "There were so many inequities," she sighs with amazement, reflecting on her time at Wal-Mart. She saw men with little to no relevant experience earning starting salaries of $3,500 a year more than her own. "I had the title but not the pay," she says. "They take us for idiots."

Adams is now a witness in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, in which seven California women -- current and former Wal-Mart employees -- are charging the company with systematic sex discrimination in promotions, assignments, training and pay.

Betty Dukes, for whom the suit is named, is a 52-year-old African-American woman who still works at Wal-Mart. First hired by the company in 1994 as a part-time cashier in Pittsburg, California, she was an eager employee with a sincere admiration for founder Sam Walton's "visionary spirit."

A year later, with excellent performance reviews, she was given a merit pay raise and a full-time job. Two years later, after being promoted to the position of customer service manager, she began encountering harsh discrimination from her superiors; she says she was denied the training she needed in order to advance further, while that same training was given to male employees. She was also denied the opportunity to work in "male" departments like hardware, and was made to sell baby clothes instead. "I can mix a can of paint," she told reporters just after filing the suit. "I want the chance to do it."

When Dukes complained about the discrimination, managers got back at her by writing her up for minor offenses like returning late from breaks, offenses routinely committed by her white and male co-workers, who were never punished, she says. When she kept complaining, she was denied a promotion and finally demoted back to her cashier job. She went to the Wal-Mart district office to complain, but the company did nothing. Being demoted was not just humiliating: It deprived Dukes of other promotions, and her cashier job offered fewer hours and a lower hourly wage. When she was once again eligible for promotion, four new management positions, none of which had even been posted, were filled by men.

Along with more than 70 witnesses, the other named plaintiffs in Dukes v. Wal-Mart tell similar stories:

-In August 1997, Patricia Surgeson, then a single mother of two, began working evenings as a part-time cashier in a Wal-Mart tire and lube department while attending community college. Within two weeks, while she was stocking shelves, she says, a male co-worker began grabbing and propositioning her. He was allowed to remain in his job, while she was transferred to the health and beauty aids department. Over the next four years, Surgeson held more responsible jobs at Wal-Mart, but these promotions weren't accompanied by raises. Many of her male co-workers were paid better than she was, she charges, even though they had less responsibility and were newer to the company.

-Hired to work in the returns department in the Livermore, California, store in fall 1998, Cleo Page, who had already worked in two other Wal-Mart stores, was quickly promoted to a customer service manager position. Interviewing a little over a year later for a promotion, she charges, she was told that it was a man's world, and that men controlled management positions at Wal-Mart. She was repeatedly passed over for promotions, which were given to male employees, and to white women. (Page, who is African-American, also has a race discrimination claim against Wal-Mart, as does Betty Dukes, but these charges are not part of the class-action suit.) At one point, her store manager discouraged her from applying for the sporting-goods department manager position, she says, because "customers would feel comfortable" buying sporting goods from a man. She heard male co-workers complain that "women were taking over" the store, and she heard them ask each other if they knew other men who would be interested in working at Wal-Mart.

-Christine Kwapnoski, who is still employed in a Concord, California, Sam's Club (a division of Wal-Mart), has worked for the company since 1986. She charges that management positions were never posted, though when she heard one was opening up she would tell supervisors she was interested. Still, the jobs were given to less qualified men, whom she then had to train. A store manager suggested that she "needed to blow the cobwebs off" her makeup and "doll up." She says she saw men getting paid at higher rates than she was, and getting raises more often; in one instance, Kwapnoski, a divorced mother of two, questioned a male co-worker's raise, and was told he had a family to support.

-After 30 years of retail experience, Deborah Gunter began working at a Riverside, California, Wal-Mart in 1996 as a photo lab clerk. She says she applied for management positions and was passed over for less experienced men. She requested further training and never got it. When she was transferred to the Tire Lube Express department, she did the work of a support manager but never got the title or the pay. Her supervisor sexually harassed her, and when she complained her hours were reduced, she says. After she trained a man to fill the support manager job, he got the title and salary, and her hours were reduced. When she complained about her reduced hours and requested a meeting with the district manager to protest the discriminatory treatment, she was fired.

And on and on. Women make up 72 percent of Wal-Mart's sales work force but only 33 percent of its managers. A study conducted for the Dukes plaintiffs by economist Marc Bendick found such discrepancies to be far less pronounced among Wal-Mart's competitors, which could boast of more than 50 percent female management. Even more striking, comparing Wal-Mart stores to competitors in the same location, Bendick's study found little geographic variation in these ratios, and little change over time. In fact, the percentage of women among Wal-Mart's 1999 management lagged behind that of its competitors in 1975. (Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz says it's "too soon" to say how the company will defend itself against these charges.)

Depending on the outcome of a class-certification hearing next July before a San Francisco federal judge, Dukes v. Wal-Mart could be the largest civil rights class-action suit in history, affecting more than 700,000 women. Though a California judge ruled recently that the case must be limited to California plaintiffs, discovery is nationwide, as is the proposed class. If the plaintiffs have their way, any woman employed by the company from 1999 on would win damages.

But even more important, says Brad Seligman, Betty Dukes's lawyer, "The idea is to change Wal-Mart. We will not have done our job unless we transform the personnel system at Wal-Mart and make sure there are additional opportunities for women."

Dukes is the culmination of a long history of individual sex-discrimination suits -- including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination -- against Wal-Mart, going back at least to 1981. Courts have often, though of course not always, ruled for the plaintiffs in these cases; in several sexual-harassment suits juries have awarded employees millions of dollars in punitive damages. Wal-Mart recently settled an EEOC sexual-harassment suit on behalf of a group of Wal-Mart employees in Mobile, Alabama, and several women unconnected to Dukes have discrimination suits under way.

Some of the lawsuits against Wal-Mart reflect common grievances cited by working women, inequities hardly unique to Wal-Mart, but that women's advocates rightly find particularly outrageous in the world's largest corporation. For example, a suit filed in Georgia by Lisa Smith Mauldin, a Wal-Mart customer service manager and a 22-year-old divorced mother of two, charges the company with sex discrimination because its health plan does not cover prescription contraceptives (it does cover other prescription drugs, but as the complaint spells out in painstaking legalese, only women get pregnant).

Mauldin works 32 hours a week and makes $12.14 an hour, so the $30 monthly cost of the pill is a significant burden for her (and certainly a prohibitive one for many fellow employees, who earn significantly lower wages). In September Mauldin's suit was certified as a class action, demanding reimbursement for all female Wal-Mart employees who have been paying for birth control out of pocket since March 2001, and demanding that Wal-Mart's insurance cover FDA-approved prescription contraceptives in the future.

Wal-Mart is also criticized for indifference to the workers, mostly young women, who make the products sold in its stores. While most major-clothing stores traffic in sweated labor, Wal-Mart's record on this issue is unusually bad. Much of the clothing sold at Wal-Mart is made in China, where workers have no freedom of association. Unlike many companies, Wal-Mart has adamantly refused to tell labor rights advocates where its factories are, rejecting even the pretense of transparency.

Last year, Wal-Mart was removed from the Domini 400 Social Index, an influential socially responsible investment fund, for its failure to make sufficient efforts to uphold labor rights and for its "unresponsiveness to calls for change." Other than Nike, Wal-Mart is the only company that has been booted from the fund for this reason.

Last June, citing all of the above issues, the National Organization for Women named Wal-Mart its fifth "Merchant of Shame" and launched a public education campaign against the retailer.

"It's part of our emphasis on economic justice. We don't think Wal-Mart is a woman-friendly workplace," says Olga Vives, NOW's vice president for action. NOW has asked Wal-Mart for a meeting to discuss its complaints, but since the company has not responded, Vives says, "we are getting their attention in other ways." On Sept. 28, 600 NOW chapters demonstrated at Wal-Mart stores across the country, from Tallahassee to Salt Lake City.

NOW has been cooperating closely with the United Food and Commercial Workers, who have been trying for several years to organize Wal-Mart workers, an effort ruthlessly resisted by the company. Gretchen Adams, who quit Wal-Mart in December 2001, now works as an organizer with the UFCW. She's angry, not only about the way she was treated, but also about the plight of the hourly workers she supervised.

"They were not paid enough to live on. There were a whole lot of single mothers," she says. "They would come in crying because they had hard decisions: whether to take their child to the doctor or pay their rent." Many hourly workers were on public assistance because their pay was so low, she recalls.

Not a single Wal-Mart store is unionized yet, but there's substantial evidence that many of the problems suffered by Wal-Mart's female employees would be alleviated by a union. A study on women in the retail food industry, published in February by the Institute for Women's Policy Research and funded by the UFCW, found that women workers in unions faced smaller gender and racial wage gaps, and earned 31 percent higher wages than women who were not in unions. In addition, the study showed that two-thirds of women in unionized retail jobs had health insurance, while only one-third of their nonunion counterparts did. Such advantages were even more dramatic for part-time workers, who are even more likely to be women.

At a Nov. 18 press conference in Washington, DC, NOW president Kim Gandy said Wal-Mart should know that "continuing their greedy, abusive ways will cost them the business of thinking consumers." This seems unlikely, though it's probably important to make the threat. In any case, the UFCW is not calling for a nationwide Wal-Mart boycott.

"We are calling for a boycott in Las Vegas," says Doug Dority, president of the UFCW. In Las Vegas, where a vigorous organizing campaign is under way, Wal-Mart has committed numerous violations of the right to organize. Las Vegas is also the most heavily unionized city in the United States. Elsewhere, however, the UFCW is not ready to take that step. "It's hard to boycott and organize at the same time," says Dority. "Because Wal-Mart uses that against you: 'Hey, the union is trying to take away your job.'"

Still, it makes sense for activists to appeal to the possible solidarity between Wal-Mart's female customers and its female work force. UFCW vice president Susan Phillips said in a recent speech, "As women, we have tremendous power. We control both sides of the cash register. We are the cashiers on one side and we are the customers on the other side. If we join hands across the cash register, we can change the economic future for women in America."

In fact, Wal-Mart customers and workers have much in common: They are increasingly likely to be anybody in America. The working poor are even more likely than other Americans to shop at Wal-Mart, not necessarily because they find it a shopper's paradise -- though of course some do -- but because they need the discounts, or live in a remote area with few other options. (Many Wal-Mart workers say they began working at their local Wal-Mart because they shopped there; when they needed a job, they filled out its application, because Wal-Mart was already such a familiar part of their lives.) Through shoppers and "associates" alike, Wal-Mart is making billions from female poverty.

In addition to court mandates and worker organizing, changing Wal-Mart is going to take massive pressure from many constituencies; union locals will need an approach to coalition-building that is highly community-specific, yet networked nationwide, similar to that used by the progressive labor organization Jobs With Justice.

Asked how long it will take to unionize Wal-Mart, Gretchen Adams, who is 56, answers without hesitation: "The rest of my life." But she's determined. As a manager opening a new store in Las Vegas, Adams says, "I was not allowed to hire any experienced help, because they might be union." Now, she deadpans, "I'm trying to get Wal-Mart the help it needs."

Liza Featherstone is writing a book about Wal-Mart and women workers. Support was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Dick Goldensohn Fun.

Opt Out of the Assault on Privacy

If you've been throwing away those offers from the Gardens of Faith Perpetual Calendar and Plate Collection, Precious Moments Porcelain Figurines, Franklin Mint Presidential Commemorative Coins and other worthless junk that arrives inside your bank and credit card statements and insurance bills, you might want to go back through the trash. Hidden within that detritus was another piece of paper, one with an important message. If you missed it, you may have unintentionally waived your right to protect the privacy of your personal financial information.

The assault on privacy is being mounted on several fronts simultaneously, and as of last month, your personal financial information is now fair game.

For example, the company that handles my homeowners insurance is also a real estate brokerage and has recently become a mortgage lender, meaning that all of the information about the value of my home and its contents is available to anyone in that company and its numerous affiliates, including a broker from NYLife, who has been coming in weekly and accessing their computer files. News to me. And I only know because I asked.

The driving force behind the dissemination of personal financial information is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999), which went into effect on July 1, 2002. Although the law purports to set new safeguards for consumer protection, in practice it means that either you defend your privacy or you lose it.

Gramm-Leach-Bliley requires banks, mortgage companies, insurance companies, credit-card, issuers, financial planners and tax preparers, to "protect against hazards or unauthorized access" to their customers' personal information by allowing customers to opt out of information sharing.

But you have to be vigilant and knowledgeable to take advantage of that protection. Under the new law, financial institutions must offer you a disclaimer yearly, but it is often confusingly worded, hidden within a morass of garbage and printed in type smaller than the letters at the bottom of the eye chart. Read the fine print. Get out your microscope and you will see that you have the option of refusing to allow them to divulge your records. But in order to opt-out you must notify each and every company in writing.

A brief backstory of the new law. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Glass-Steagall Act (Banking Act of 1933) was passed in an effort to restore confidence in the banking system. Glass-Steagal was predicated on the idea that "America's financial house (would) best be kept in order if bankers and brokers stay in separate rooms."

Glass-Steagall reshaped America's financial landscape, first by establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to insure customer accounts. Second, it required banks to either accept deposits or underwrite securities, but not both. Banks had to decide whether to become commercial banks that accept customer deposits in checking and savings accounts, or investment banks that engage in "the riskier business of corporate underwriting, involving the purchase of new securities from the corporate issuers and their resale to the public."

This separation between stability and risk worked well for 66 years, until soon-to-be-retired Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm decided to bestow a parting gift on the banking community.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act effectively repeals the Glass-Steagall Act. Under its new provisions, banks, securities firms and insurance companies are no longer prohibited from forming affiliations. More to the point, they can freely exchange your private financial information with their cohorts.

According to financial planner David Root: "If you're providing information to one institution, it's going to be shared down the line. Not only would your credit report be fair game, your entire banking history, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers could be traded and sold to any business that wants to get their hot little hands on it."

The privacy provisions of Gramm-Leach-Bliley "requires all financial institutions, regardless of whether they form an FHC (Financial Holding Company), to disclose to customers their policies and practices for protecting the privacy of non-public personal information. The disclosure which customers would receive at the time of establishing the relationship and at least annually thereafter would allow customers to 'opt-out' of information sharing arrangements to non-affiliated third-parties. The Act permits financial institutions to share personal customer information with affiliates within the holding company."

Opt-out is the salient point. If you do not exercise that choice, you are opted-in by default.

Ignore these notifications at your own peril. If you receive an opt-out notification, respond to it. If you have not already received that communication from the institutions you do business with, you need to contact each of them and request the opt-out form. That includes banks, tax preparers, real estate brokers, credit card companies, stock brokerage firms and anyone else who has access to your social security number.

Privacy is an elusive commodity these days. And make no mistake about it, it is a commodity. Your personal information is being shared and sold every day, often without your knowledge or consent. If you want to protect your self, you need to be proactive. Opt out.

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