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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Junk Mail 101: The Tragic Omnipresence of Your Name and Personal Data

If you think all you have to worry about is ChoicePoint and LexisNexis, when it comes to large, data brokers warehousing your name and personal data…well, think again. I’m about to spill the beans on the “big five” in junk mail that compile names and private information from multiple sources and cryptically unite this data in the storehouses of their technological jungles.

These collectors of information are the scavengers of junk mail. Their cornucopias of endless data transform your daily life into an open book. They are creatures of habit, seizing every opportunity to corral every morsel of your existence. They are: Abacus Catalog Alliance, Acxiom, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The latter three are also credit bureaus who supply your financial information to businesses and individuals.

What do the “big five” know about you? What personal data of yours do they sell to the junk mail community? How secure is your private information within these knowledge-based giants? I’m glad you asked, but, first, a recent news item that will set the stage for this journey.

It’s about a guy named Jeremy MacKinney who received a letter recently from LexisNexis advising him that some of his personal data might be on the loose. You can read the story on MSNBC.com, but Jeremy’s initial low level of worry escalated quickly when he found out what the lost information was.

Yep, there it was, the Social Security number, his current employer, each of his moves for the past twelve years, including a stint in a California monastery. There were past roommates and family, along with their demographics, and, yep, even their Social Security numbers.

The article, “Hacker’s assaults may prod reforms,” is worth your time and makes several good points, among them the fact that these companies have tons of information on consumers and they sell it everywhere without your permission. So, exactly who are they?

The Abacus Catalog Alliance is a breeding colossus, with over 90-million households stocked with your intimate purchasing facts, including when and how many times you purchase, how much you paid, what you bought and your credit card numbers. Over 1,500 of the top catalogs you shop from funnel this information into Abacus, where they maintain precise data on some 4.4 billion buying transactions from your purchases.

Acxiom’s InfoBase can best be described as a “monster.” Over 200 items of your most private data—total value vehicles owned, available home equity and market value, date of birth, gambling and drinking habits, your politics, etc.—from 176 million individuals in 114 million households. That’s pretty much all of us, isn’t it? Acxiom, like ChoicePoint, has Homeland Security contracts, garnered with the help of retired General and former presidential candidate, Wesley Clark, who is an Acxiom-paid board member; $300,000 in 2002.

Equifax, another behemoth rears its head. In addition to their treasure-trove of credit data, the company has two lists that, again, seem to assemble all of us into a huge, neat package. Over 107 million households with 31 different sources of data, divided into more than 150 personalized characteristics. Add to that 47 million households with 500 personal lifestyle habits including credit cards used, products purchased through specific channels, ie., books or for children, if you are dieting or a gambler, frequent travelers, your online service, long distance carrier, average LD bill and if you make international calls.

And then there’s Experian, another credit provider with two lists very similar to Equifax. Because these similarities are so pronounced, there is another story I’d like to tell you about Experian’s predecessor, Metromail Corp. Before the latter was acquired by Experian, it decided to save money by using prisoners to capture personal information from surveys. Now you have an individual in the slammer for who knows what and that person is in control of your most intimate data.

Well, the obvious happened. The info was used to intimidate a woman by sending her mail from a convicted rapist and burglar. The woman filed legal action against Metromail, a class-action suit resulted, and the company is no longer allowed to use prisoners to process their surveys. The irony here is that Metromail thought they had breached no privacy.

Finally, there’s TransUnion, the third credit provider that is also instrumental in all those junk mail offers you receive for auto insurance. In a scoring system based on your credit worthiness, they provide casualty insurers names of those they deem qualified. They also sell lists of millions of names from selective titles such as “Outer Limits.” That’s households with a premium credit card, department store card, upscale card, a bank card, either a finance loan or jewelry buyers or home furnishings buyers. I tell you this because it takes some extreme analysis of your personal data to justify putting a list of this nature on the market.

However, TransUnion’s claim to fame is when they were turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court for their efforts to sell your name along with your highly sensitive data. They had been a persistent litigator for years to sell your private information their way, including a ten-year battle with the Federal Trade Commission, which they also lost.

Some of the above data is compiled from public records, some from surveys you willingly complete to receive free products. The balance is from a multitude of private sources, a subject that is in itself worth a separate post in the future.

If you’re interested, click on the above sites and marvel over how your name is being sold. If you’re a mind to, use the “contact” button on each site, except for TransUnion, to tell these companies what you think about what they are doing with your name and personal data. Contact TU at: TransUnion, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022.

10 comments:

Insurgent said...

Hello, Jeremy MacKinney here. Funny to find my name in your blog, but it was a good post. We're in an age where it is extremely difficult to live "off the radar".

For the record, though the Star Tribune got their story slightly wrong. When it mentioned that "there was my social security number and state of issue", etc I believe they were referring to my driver's license number. the reporter who interviewed me brought me a big stack of info that she was able to buy from Lexis but the social was one thing she was not able to get; it is unclear whether the hackers were able to get it or not.

Either way, it was an interesting wake-up-call. Once I move to new Hampshire as part of The Free State Project (www.FreeStateProject.org) I hope to be able to live off the grid.

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