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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How You Can Stop Worrying and Learn To Love Junk Mail

Yes, your name is a goldmine, but you just don’t have the rights to the claim. Yet. The mother lode is there, however, and you could start mining with some help from the U.S. Congress. This golden goose resides within the junk mail industry and its tributaries and is commonly referred to as a “list of names,” sometimes a “database.” The bonanza is a prize that could convince you to stop worrying and learn to love junk mail.

To bring this closer to home, let’s look at the U.S. consumer, junk mail shopping population. There are roughly 159 million people shopping by junk mail in some 61 million households. You spend approximately $2.3 trillion buying products and services annually, creating sales of your names of around $4 billion. Now what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what.

You should be sharing in that $4 billion to the tune of $2 billion, which seems reasonable to me, since it’s your name and personal information. Without you, the name predators have nothing to work with. Without you, the junk mail industry would come to an immediate and screeching halt. What’s missing is your control.

For someone with whom I disagree with politically, Bob Barr, former Congressman from Georgia, has written an interesting article for FindLaw.com. This was, no doubt, prompted by the ChoicePoint (located in GA) incident where 145,000 names with personal data, was compromised by a ring of Nigerian scam artists. Barr makes three good points:

1. The space to store information has gotten smaller and smaller. It’s like putting your life history on the head of a pin, with plenty of room to spare.
2. Slow moving information—remember Internet dial-up connections—has progressed to the speed of light. Your name and private information are on the market for days, sometimes weeks, before you receive your ordered merchandise.
3. The threat that your data will be stolen, lost or jeopardized in other ways. Possibilities confirmed by the ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Bank of America incidents.

He goes on to point out that we’ve been told by Machiavelli and Benjamin Franklin for centuries that faced with a choice between liberty and security…the majority of people will choose security. The article is well worth reading. The point is control.

You might be thinking that ownership is the right answer. However, Beth Givens, founder of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, makes a strong point in her premise that individual ownership of our name and personal data is not the answer. There are too many scam artists out there that would take advantage of this situation. The correct approach is legal control that could be afforded to each individual through federal legislation.


Most people have no idea of the countless ways their name is manipulated after each junk mail transaction. Huge databases are built resulting in dossiers established on most American households. Identity theft is rampant and getting worse. Non-junk mail companies have entered the arena, marketing your name and the personal data they have compiled on you.
You probably have no concept of the real value of your name. But the junk mailers do, reaping huge profits from over 27,000 consumer lists on the market to achieve that $4 billion each year.

Another good article is by Lou Agosta in DM Review.com, a publication for business intelligence and data warehousing. One of his headlines goes right to the issue: “Hot Potato – Whose Data is it Anyway?” He mentions the data brokers Acxiom, ChoicePoint and LexisNexis and questions how they qualify the companies to whom they sell data. Good point, but most solutions are still subject to potential problems. It’s the human element with control in the wrong hands.

A plausible theory is to set up a system of checks and balances that would document each use, then, alert the individual that his or her name has been used. All these transactions would feed into one system where there would be an accounting of results to compensate the name-holder. As an added benefit, monitoring each transaction could cut back the incidence of identity theft dramatically. Control…finally, in the right hands…yours.

To reach this goal, we will need federal legislation, and that means Congress has to be goaded by their constituents, and that’s you. I will be writing and E-mailing select members of Congress who are sympathetic toward consumer causes. Together, we can get the job done.

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wolf_j_flywheel@hotmail.com said...

Interesting blog.. the really sad thing is that in many cases I would actually go and buy some of the products on offer, although my p*n*s is fine thanks and why the heck would I need American car insurance when I don't live in the US??? What intrigues me though Mr Dunning is that on another spam blog that I visited tonight, I spotted your surname and thats what led me here. Surely you're not keeping something going as a sideline? As an investigative journalist I'd be intrigued to hear your comments ? No, the name's not real but the email address is. Speak to you soon !