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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Junk Mail 101: The Internet, Cyberspace and Identity Theft

Stories abound over the beginnings of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Remember when we thought nothing could surpass television? Well, it did, and with a momentum that will be hard to duplicate in the future, if ever. With a series of commands on your computer, you can be anywhere, doing just about anything. But beware, because this medium of communications continues to take first prize for scams that will quickly relieve you of your money, your name, your personal data, and possibly even result in identity theft.

Of course, the junk mailers are there again, excitedly working their way through a goldmine of data that is currently the new wave in selling your name. While the old method using the postal address brings in around fifteen cents, your e-mail address is worth up to seventy-five cents, with an average of around twenty-five to thirty cents. And that would be OK if some of this money was going in your pocket.

Industry giant, America Online, sells their members’ names for about nineteen cents. There are many other Internet and e-mail lists on the market, but the colossus is one called Able Double Opt-In Consumer E-Mail Masterfile. Almost six million names at twenty-six cents a pop, and they know over three-hundred-fifty intimate details about your household. Go to http://www.act1lists.com, and click on “List Categories,” then “Consumer Mail Order & Responder Lists,” then scroll down and click on “Double Opt-In Consumer E-Mail Master” to see what they know about you.

They can identify: your marital status, age, income, gambling habits, software you own, adoptions in the household, credit cards, those who bank or invest on-line, your religion and political preference, whether or not you are gay/lesbian and looking for a mate, your occupation and medical ailments. All of these private facts, plus more than three-hundred more, are locked away in this company’s database, ready for immediate access.

It is well worth your time and effort to find out how your life has been made an open book, just because you answered an online survey to receive e-mail offers. You also get an inside peek at one of the companies selling your name and personal data.

And here’s a frightening scenario. What if your name and personal data like this were to end up on the street through the efforts of a hacker and then is sold under the table to unprincipled businesses? A health insurance company could use the medical ailments to deny coverage. A large corporation could turn down applicants for a job due to their weakness for gambling or for being gay or lesbian. The possibilities are limited only by what private information is available.

The huge on-line retailer, Amazon.com, went round-and-round with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Junkbusters about change in their privacy policy in September of 2000. The two organizations, in May of 2001, asked the FTC to stop Amazon.com from disclosing customer information without their consent. However, the FTC sided with Amazon.com, commenting that the company does not sell or rent customer names or personal information and would not do so unless it allowed them to opt-out first.

In a personal experience, my wife went on-line to check Amazon.com’s new apparel line in November of 2002, surfing through the offers but buying nothing, not even asking for information. We were more than surprised a few days later when she received an e-mail from Jeff Bezos, the firm’s CEO, thanking her for her supposedly unchaperoned visit. No big deal, perhaps, but clear evidence that our privacy is compromised on almost every move we make.

It is painfully clear that the battle over control of your name and personal data extends full force into the Internet age. And it is because of this very problem that Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina introduced the Online Personal Privacy Act in April of 2002. The 107th session of Congress adjourned before taking up the bill and apparently it is still in limbo. Senator Hollings has considered reintroducing the legislation. Perhaps you should contact your members of Congress and ask them to support Senator Hollings’ bill.

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