It’s no secret marketing efforts to learn more about us, our buying habits, our favorite brands, the music we like to listen to, how much money we spend and earn and even how many children we have. This information is pooled together to determine consumer trends.
And then there’s information collected with the hopes of targeting you and your buying habits so that their clients can target you with specific offers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s controversial, for sure, but in most instances, it’s legal. Unless you live in Massachusetts.
Ever been in the grocery store, your purchases have been totaled and you just swiped your debit or credit card? Has that ever been followed up with a request for your zip code or phone number? Retailers in Massachusetts are no longer allowed to ask for that kind of information, according to the MA Supreme Court. It all began with a class action lawsuit between Michael’s, a national arts and crafts chain, and a resident in Massachusetts.
The resident, who was fed up with the inability to get her name off of mailing lists and the increase in mailings and spam email, took legal action to prevent those sales pitches and even marketing codes from being used. It all began simply by giving her zip code to Michael’s during a routine transaction. And despite Michael’s insistence that it requested the five digit number for security purposes, the consumer said by giving the retailer that information unleashed a wave of unsolicited credit offers, marketing calls and other electronic spam.
For some time, Internet Explorer was seen as the digital culprit and in fact, it was. Retailers took advantage of that open window, too. Shopzilla.com, BizRate.com and, of course, Amazon all manipulated the vulnerabilities in the browser for their benefit. And if it sounds like this was something that would have happened years ago, you should know it continues today.
While there are many obvious problems these cookies and other efforts of collecting information present, with the growing number of identity theft cases (it’s the fastest rising crime in the U.S.) along with the fact that most of us, at some point, have keyed our credit card numbers into a website, it becomes clear there’s far more at stake than unsolicited offers from third parties.
Another big concern is that it can become confusing for consumers. Along with the bevy of both state and federal laws, there are those instances when information is collected and used only for the reasons stated. In most states, gas stations that allow consumers to fill up their tanks using their credit cards after hours require a zip code and in those instances, the goal really is to provide another layer of security. Some analysts cite consumers who don’t mind providing that information, especially if it means they will receive coupons or other special offers.
And then there are those websites who want consumers to shop with them, but only if they’re willing to agree to the site’s cookies policy. Sears is one example. In fact, some say they can’t even pay their credit card unless they enable the cookies. That too is troublesome.
At any rate, the Massachusetts court agreed with the resident/consumer that laws had been broken by Michael’s. As a result, it’s now banned. The only exception is if the information, such as addresses, zip codes and phone numbers are need to complete a purchase or set up a delivery time. The resident, meanwhile, was awarded $25 because her privacy had been violated.
It’s clear there remain a lot of wrinkles to work out as we become even more reliant on technology. This, coupled with efforts in the financial sector and certainly with credit card companies, means it’s going to be a long and slow dance as we continue to merge these new opportunities into our everyday lives.
For those consumers who don’t wish to dole out that kind of information, you can simply decline to provide it. That exception, again, is if it’s being requested for legitimate reasons, such as shipping instructions. If you feel your information has been compromised, it’s important to get out in front of it to ensure there aren’t bigger fires, like identity theft, at work. There are always different legislative efforts being produced in Congress. Most recently, the Department of Commerce and the federal trade Commission worked to get a law passed, “Do Not Track”, that would change the way this information is collected used and even deleted.
Efforts are also ongoing to provide an across the board policy, regardless of which state a consumer resides in. Better clarifications are long overdue when it comes to the responsibility of a website to let a consumer know that the information is being collected and how it’s being used. Opting out should always be an option; however, that’s been challenging to justify. Because hackers often use this kind of gateways to hack into a website, companies are becoming more cautious.
The resident who brought the suit won a whopping $25 for violation of privacy.
So how do you handle questions by clerks asking for zip codes or other information? Do you provide it?
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