Private information — who you are, where you live, your income and buying habits — is mined and sold to direct mail companies, banks, magazine publishers and scores of other businesses. In essence, your identity is being bought and sold every day. And once bought, telemarketers and direct (or “junk”) mail companies can extrapolate whatever they need to know. “They’re not only taking information from one place. They’re calling it up and trying to match it from different places. In the end, they have a pretty good profile of you, what you like, where you live and your phone number, even if it’s unlisted because you put it down on some application or form.” This week is National Consumer Protection Week, created by the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators to highlight the issue of consumer protection. The agency maintains that this week is a good time to review credit reports for fraud and inaccuracies, as well as consider ways to protect your personal information from data dealers. One way of doing this is to forbid banks and credit agencies from prescreening your credit report. “Any company can look at your credit report to offer you a credit card,” Sherry said. “But the fact that they’re pre-screening and you don’t know about it really bothers me. They can see how many outstanding credit limits you have, your payment history. That’s too much information.” Beth Givens, project director of the Sari Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said personal information can be gleaned in many well-disguised ways, including through the use of supermarket discount cards. To receive instant discounts at Safeway, Lucky and many other supermarket chains, shoppers are asked to provide their name, address, phone number and other information. Supermarkets record purchases made with discount cards to target other discounts and special offers. “They’ll say they they’re doing inventory control. For instance, if (the supermarket) is in a Hispanic neighborhood, they want to know if a certain Mexican food is selling well,’ Givens said. “But they’re also building a profile of each individual, which is scary ... The danger is that the information will be used for other things than the stated purposes.” Safeway Corporate Director of Public Affairs Debra Lambert said company policy prohibits the selling of customer information to third parties, such as telemarketing and direct mail businesses, though Safeway does record a customer’s purchase data. Lucky and the Southern California based Ralph’s have similar policies. Lambert said it is possible for the company to print out a complete buying history for a customer. “It’s possible, but it’s not something that we’d do. What we’re trying to assess is general shopping patterns We want to know what products are doing well in certain areas and what products are needed.” Safeway contracts with product manufacturers to mail discounts to shoppers or offer direct coupons at the register if you buy a competitor’s product, such as in the Pepsi-Coke scenario. Even in those cases, Lambert maintains, customer data are kept confidential. “We handle the mailing. We never allow them to see customer-specific information,” she said. M unsuspected way direct mailers, banks and telemarketers collect consumer data is through the use of mail-in product warranty cards, also called registration cards, that come with most appliances. The cards often ask for personal information having nothing to do with the product, such as your income and marital status. “You don’t have to register to get a warranty as long as you’ve saved the receipt,” Sherry said. “It does register you as having bought the product. But more than likely, that information will find its way to someone else, like the direct mail companies.” So how does a privacy-conscious consumer get discounts and function in a data-digging world? First, learn to say no. Most stores will offer discounts and products even if you withhold some personal information, says Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “You don’t have to give your name when you get a supermarket card. Safeway says you can register as an anonymous shopper.” Second, check your credit report for unfamiliar accounts or fraudulent charges. This would indicate that your personal information has already fallen into the wrong hands. Visa U.S.A. recently released the first issue of “Knowledge Pays: A Guide to Payment Products and Responsible Money Management,” with tips on how to combat credit card fraud, consumer credit rights and credit card use. “Contact the creditor and let them know the information is not accurate,” said Rosetta Jones of Visa Corporate Relations. “All the major credit reporting agencies have to correct the information. You also need to contact the police.” Have your name removed from direct market lists to curb unwanted mail and data exchange. Finally, contact the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, and forbid pre-screening credit rating checks, which will stop unsolicited credit card offers. 

• By law credit reporting bureaus must delete a persons name upon request. To have your name removed from Equifax, Transunion and Experion mailing lists used for credit pre screening purposes, call. 888 561 8688

To be taken off credit card lists call 1-888-5 optout 1-888-567-8688

• To be removed from all national direct mail and telephone solicitations (except religious, charitable, political and alumni associations) send a written request with your name and address to:

Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735

Telephone Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735

• for a free copy of "Knowlage Pays: A Guide to Payment Products and Responsible Money Management"
Call  888 VISA 606 (888 841-2606)