Protecting Your Privacy
Listed below are easy ways to protect your privacy as a consumer. Please note that the following may not be available in all states or in all countries.
The last two decades have been marked by giant leaps in the ability to collect, store and move information almost instantaneously around the world. Many businesses are using technology to improve customer service and to help target direct mail offers to those most likely to respond. New systems also speed up processing time for orders and help control the costs of doing business.
The expanded clacbility to collect, store and use data about our personal, financial and medical histories concerns many consumers, who wonder how such information is protected and who has access to it. There are many ways you can help to protect your privacy.
Credit bureaus compile records of individual consumers' credit habits to assist lenders, employers and other businesses (such as retail stores and utilities) in assessing applicants' creditworthiness. You should check your credit bureau records periodically.
- Get a copy of your credit report and check for inaccuracies. In the United States, credit records are usually maintained by credit bureaus that normally operate on one of three national reporting systems: Equifax, Experian (formerly TRW) and Trans Union. Checking for inaccuracies will enable you to correct mistakes before you apply for a job, credit or insurance. Some bureau systems charge for a copy of your report. The law requires that if you have been denied credit within the last 60 days, the report is free from the bureau that supplied the report to the creditor.
- If you find inaccuracies, write to the credit bureau and explain the error(s). The bureau is required to re-verify the information within 30 days or remove it from your file. You may wish to review information held by the other major credit bureaus as well.
- If there is negative information that must remain in your file, you can tell your side of the story. Send the bureau a brief statement of explanation (100 words), which must be kept in your file. Negative information is generally kept for seven years; bankruptcy information for 10.
The Medical Information Bureau (MIB) is a data bank used by 680 U.S. insurance companies. Medical and some nonmedical information about you is collected from insurers and, with your authorization, shared when you apply for individual life, health or disability insurance. MIB may have a brief coded report of applicants who have significant underwriting risks. The MIB helps insurers guard against fraud, as the costs of fraud are passed on to consumers through higher premiums.
- You may obtain a copy of your MIB report by writing to the MIB. (For the MIB's address, see For More Information, at the bottom of this page).
- To verify its accuracy and completeness, discuss your MIB report and other medical records periodically with your health care provider.
Some retailers offer rebate, incentive and warranty programs that benefit consumers. Ask who has access to information you provide to participate in these programs. Some companies use this data to create mailing lists that are sold to marketers. Many consumers find receiving such offers a benefit; others do not.
- Rebate and incentive program applications ask for your name, address and phone number. Ask whether you can participate without providing other personal information.
- It is in your interest to return warranty cards to manufacturers so they can notify you about product warnings and recalls. You may leave blank those questions you feel are unnecessary for this purpose, and request in writing to opt out of marketing programs based on the type of personal information you provide.
Caller ID is a service offered by telephone companies in most areas across the United States. Subscribing to Caller ID allows you to see the numbers from which incoming calls are placed before you pick up the telephone.
Companies with 800 and 900 numbers can use a similar identification technology to record your telephone number when you call. Some firms use your number to help retrieve your records faster and improve the quality and speed of handling your call. Be aware when you call that firms may also match your number to your name and address to add to customer lists created for marketing or service purposes.
- If you don't recognize a number, you have the choice of answering or not.
- If you don't want your number revealed to those who have Caller ID, your local telephone company probably offers per-call or per-line blocking mechanisms to prevent it from being displayed. You also can call from a pay phone, or ask an operator to place the call and not reveal your number.
Cellular and cordless phone conversations are easily monitored. You may choose to avoid conducting confidential conversations on these phones, especially phone calls in which you reveal credit card numbers or other personal information.
Many companies use direct mail and telemarketing to reach consumers. If you do not wish to be solicited, request to opt out of these programs.
- To reduce the number of direct mail or telephone solicitations you receive, write to the companies that are contacting you and ask to be removed from their lists. Also, watch for special billing inserts provided by some companies that let you exclude your name from their lists.
- In the US, contact the Mail Preference Service and the Telephone Preference Service of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). Your name can be removed from (or added to) the lists of DMA members that participate in these programs. You will still get some mail and calls, but this will help reduce the volume. (For contact details, see For More Information, at the bottom of this page).
- To control what information about you is kept, say no to telemarketers who want more information than you feel is necessary and to those who refuse to send follow-up explanatory materials.
- Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (a U.S. federal law) a telemarketer who calls you cannot continue this practice after you have requested that the calls stop.
- To reduce the number of Internet marketing offers you receive, send an E-mail reply to the offers from companies or organizations you do not wish to hear from, and request to be removed from future Internet marketing lists.
- Look for an Internet privacy statement on websites where you browse. The statement should explain what information is collected, how it is used and safeguarded, and how to set your E-mail marketing preferences.
- Do not write your telephone number on credit or charge card purchase slips. Major credit and charge card providers do not require a telephone number for identification. (Where the merchant has no electronic or telephone connection with the card company to verify your account at the time of purchase, you may still be asked to provide a telephone number, however.)
- To avoid common sources of fraud, do not allow your credit or charge card account number to be written on your personal check -- particularly if your driver's license number is being recorded as well. Do not put your Social Security number on your checks.
- In the US, a number of states forbid merchants to record credit or charge card account numbers on personal checks. Merchants are permitted to simply note whether you have a major credit or charge card as an indicator of your creditworthiness. Exceptions are such services as emergency check cashing, where you have pre-approved the use of your card to guarantee your check. Be forewarned, however, that merchants may refuse to accept your check if you refuse to allow them to record your card number.
For More Information
If you reside in the United States or its territories, you may wish to consult the consumer affairs office of the company involved, the U.S. Better Business Bureau, or your local or state consumer protection agency; or call or write to any of the organizations listed below.
Local credit bureaus are listed in the yellow pages under the heading "Credit Reporting Agencies" or "Credit Bureaus."
- To receive a form for ordering a copy of your credit report:
P.O. Box 105873
Atlanta, GA 30348
Experian (formerly TRW)
P.O. Box 8030
Layton, UT 84041
P.O. Box 390
Springfield, PA 19064
- To get a copy of your MIB file:
Medical Information Bureau
P.O. Box 105
Boston, MA 02112
To have your name removed from many mailing and/or telemarketing lists, contact the Direct Marketing Association:
Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008
Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014
Created in cooperation with the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse