August 31, 2006
Buyers include marketers, employers, government agencies and thieves; Consumer Reports offers tips to limit privacy invasion and thwart identify theft.
YONKERS, NY – The practices of commercial data brokers can rob consumers of their privacy, threaten them with identity theft and profile them as dead beats or security risks, according to an investigative report in Consumer Reports October Issue.
Choice Point, LexisNexis and Acxiom are among the largest of the horde of data brokers that generate billions of dollars in revenue by selling sensitive and personal information about millions of Americans to paying customers, sometimes including crooks looking to cash in.
CR’s three-month investigation concluded that current federal laws do not adequately safeguard American’s sensitive information, which is often collected and sold by data brokers. This information can include Social Security Numbers, phone numbers, credit card numbers, information about an individual’s prescription medication, shopping habits, political affiliations and sexual orientations.
Among the most troublesome findings of CR’s investigation: There is no way an individual can find out exactly what data collectors are telling others; and the accuracy of that data is rarely verified. When CR staffers asked to see their own files, they received scant information. One report contained
more than 31 errors.
CR’s investigation reveals the growth of the Internet has spawned data brokers that use deceptive practices to obtain sensitive and personal information about people and sells it to virtually anyone, sometimes with fatal consequences.
For more information, the complete report on the practices of data brokers is available in the October issue of Consumer Reports or by visiting www.ConsumerReports.org.
Personal, sensitive information can be obtained from several sources, most commonly are public records. Some data collectors hire researchers to visit courthouses and county clerks’ offices to retrieve information from paper records. However, a growing number of state and local governments are posting personal records online, making information gathering easier and increasing the potential for abuse. In addition, consumers themselves supply tons of data, often unwittingly, because information about purchases, donations, and memberships is now widely shared. In fact, most list creation comes from the activities of consumers like buying from catalogues, ordering magazines, joining associations or filling out warranty cards.
A steady customer, the federal government often enlists the services of data brokers, but there is no way to know exactly what it collects or exactly how much it pays. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed unrelated bits of personal data to be pieced together to target American citizens as potential threats who merit surveillance or investigation. In fiscal 2005, the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, and the Social Security Administration spent $30 million on data-broker contracts, according to the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO).Finding out what the government is buying has proven impossible.
While consumers have little or no control over much of the data collection and sharing that occurs, they can limit the amount of information circulating about them. Checking the accuracy of this information will also help spot signs of ID theft and fraud. To do so, consumers can take the following precautions:
• Opt out of telemarketing, unwanted solicitations and the sale of your information to others. Enroll in the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call registry by going to www.donotcall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222. Ask financial institutions, retailers and Web sites not to share your information with other nonaffiliated companies. Contact the
Direct Marketing Association at www.dmaconsumers.org/consumerassisance.html; for unsolicited email, www.dmaconsumers.org/consumers/optoutform_emps.shtml. Also, The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lists data brokers that offer limited opt-out policies at www.privacyrights.org/ar/infobrokers.htm.
• Don’t fill out surveys on warranty cards. Just provide your name, address, and necessary product information, and your warranty will be honored. Be careful with direct-mail surveys that don’t come from companies with which you already do business.
• Don’t provide sensitive information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or you’re sure that it is from an organization you trust. If in doubt, contact the organization.
• Order your free annual report from each of the major nationwide credit-reporting companies once every 12 months at www.annualcreditreport.com.
• Request your files from the major databrokers: ChoicePoint at www.choicetrust.com LexisNexis at www.lexisnexis.com/terms/privacy/data/obtain.asp. You can call Acxiom at 877-774-2094 or send email to email@example.com.
• Get medical information. If you’ve applied for individual health- or life insurance policies within the past seven years, the MIB Group keeps data that insurers use to help determine your rates. Get a report by calling MIB toll-free at 866-692-6901.
The October 2006 issue of Consumer Reports is on sale September 5 wherever magazines are sold. To subscribe, call 1-800-765-1845.
Lauren Hackett (914) 378-2561
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