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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ethnic Profiling In Junk Mail

There are over 1,500 ethnic mailing lists being sold today by the junk mail industry. Compare that with the number of apparel lists being sold: just under 600. What is the fascination of such lists? A recent Web article, Marketers seek Jewish data, by Ted Siefer, points out that junk mailers are becoming more “savvy” in targeting certain groups, and that is “cause for alarm,” considering the surge of identity theft.

As Al Jolson used to say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Most every ethnicity is covered in the 1,541 lists, with some religions also identified: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. One list, “Jewish Households By Lifestyle Interest,” available through the ClientLogic company in Fairlawn, NJ, sells Jewish families that gamble, travel overseas and drink. They also sell a similar list for Islamic households, minus the gambling and drinking. Syrian households are available from the TMA List Brokerage & Management company in Reston, VA.

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on their Web site, “Profiling’s Limits,” that states “the ethnic or religious identity of a person may be one factor, preferably not the only one, leading to heightened scrutiny of some passengers, truck drivers, and so forth. But that scrutiny should be handled with care and respect”

Any ethnic list sold under that category is blatantly designed to separate out a group of people and place them in a neat category. It’s all a part of the junk mail frenzy to create another database that will outperform the one before it. The approach used to be to target households of younger females that buy expensive apparel. Today, the latter applies, but the junk mailer also wants to know her age, income, occupation, education, whether she has children and what age, whether she’s married, her investments, travel plans, and, of course her ethnicity, and the list goes on and on. The question is, exactly what is all this data used for?

Ted Seifer’s article quotes one list professional as mandating that the whole process of selling these names is safe. It is not. Yes, the list owner requires samples of what is to be mailed for approval, but the bad guys have been known to submit fraudulent samples, which were approved. Once in their hands, the crooks can do with the names as they please. Or, computer tapes are lost, as was the case with Bank of America. With the large number of transactions and times these names change hands, there are endless chances for a data breach.

So, once again, what is the real purpose of amassing all this data? The short answer the junk mail industry would have us believe is to best identify households so they can be sold only those products and services they want. This becomes laughable when you understand that 98 out of 100 pieces of mail that goes to these households ends up in the trash. The honest answer is that the ethnic craze is just the latest excuse to acquire more data on U.S. households and store it in a multitude of junk mailer computers for sale.

The exception is that in today’s hostile environment due to the terrorist threat, it does not bode well for some ethnic groups that may be sitting targets. And, we’ll dig deeper into this problem in my next post.

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