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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 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, 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.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Junk Mail 101: Junk Mailers Believe They Own Your Name II

In my last post, I promised to name names (of junk mail companies) and quote prices (for the sale of your name) to show the extravagancies of this process. But first let me give you some background. Your name and personal information go through an intricate process in their journey to the ubiquitous auction block. I won’t bore you with the finest details but the basic facts should both interest and concern you.

You make a simple purchase from Acme Mail Order Merchandise. The second your name hits their doorstep, the primary motivation is to prepare your name, along with any accompanying private data, for sale to other junk mail companies. It is rushed through a series of computers until it reaches the list people who hawk your name. Your moniker could be on the market within hours, defined as a “hotline” name for sale. As such, it draws a premium price, as compared to buyers that are several months old. By the way, how long did it take you to receive that order?

During all this time, your name and personal information is in several hands; some negligent, some incompetent, but the majority, reasonably capable. It is the former two I worry about and find potentially the most dangerous. In my list brokerage firm we had something called the “banana’ award for having to deal with the “monkey” mentality among list suppliers. It was a trophy that was given at least once a day and often reviled by some who thought it was an insult to the monkeys. But you get the idea…and can begin to understand what happened at ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Bank of America, etc.

Since the junk mailers’ first consideration is $’s, then more $’s, when it comes to your name, you should know what they are charging that allows them to achieve an annual take of $4 billion. If you weren’t already concerned with the negligence and incompetence, this bit of math should drive you right up the wall.

The average name sells for around 12 cents. Doesn’t sound like much but keep your eye on the $4 billion. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m going to show you how this could supplement your Social Security in a future post. Right now, let’s focus on the 12 cents.

Do you shop from the Sharper Image catalog? If you do, your name generally sells for around 23 cents, almost twice the average. Their list is managed by ALC of New York. And then there’s Coldwater Creek at 21 cents, managed by Millard Group, with Bloomingdale’s close behind at almost 19.5 cents, managed by Mokrynskidirect.

All the computer products aficionados who buy from TigerDirect cost 19 cents, managed by 21st Century Marketing. And if you are a subscriber to PC Magazine (Email and on their Email list, you’re worth 21.5 cents, and they are managed by Walter Karl.

These junk mailers were picked, based on their pricing of names in excess of the overall average of 12 cents.

As a matter of background, a list manager is like an agent for actors or writers. They handle all the grunt work in representing lists of names to be sold in the marketplace. They share in the process of determining the price of a name and collect all the money. They are highlighted, above, along with the junk mailers, for easy access, if you want to contact them. If you do, some suggestions:

Ask them if they think they own your name. If they say yes, inquire on what legal basis. If they say no, ask them why they sell it without your approval.

And if they try to tell you the sale of your name is built into the price of their products, ask them how they can do this without your permission.

If you will share your results with me, they will be included in future posts. The idea is to open communications with the junk mail industry and solicit reactions to my premise that you should have 100% control over your name and personal data. More junk mailers can be added for contact if the interest is high enough. Good luck!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Junk Mail 101: Junk Mailers Believe They Own Your Name

Ever thought of it? Most people haven’t. So, ask yourself: “Do I control my name?” Probably think it doesn’t matter. Wrong. And here’s why: the junk mail industry has been selling names (your name) over the years for millions of dollars annually. Yes, I do mean millions, year after year after year. How much goes in your pocket? ZERO. Now you’re starting to think about it.

As a consumer, you know how much you pay for the right to shop by mail or telephone or on the Internet. But, did you know that your good name is the glue that holds many junk mail companies together? In some cases, it is the only profit they make. If a royalty were paid to you for the use of your name—and it should be, since you must certainly be considered the primary guardian—the fair amount would be at least fifty cents on every dollar made by the junk mailers. The American consumer is currently being deprived of $2 billion a year, based on the selling of his or her name.

And then, as if absconding with your name was not enough, these appropriators decided that it was necessary to monitor and document your every move. In 1984, over thirty years after George Orwell’s death, most of us sat back, satisfied that his “Negative Utopia” was not to be. Well, it happened. Maybe not exactly in the year 1984, but very soon thereafter. The mid-1980’s produced a modicum of info-gathering activity that escalated into the 1990’s. It was at this point that the power was turned on. The junk mail companies began to excitedly grope into the private lives of every U.S. household they could get their hands on. I know…I was there.

And then came the Internet…the World_Wide_Web. Never before have we human beings and our privacy been so utterly assaulted by technology with the force of a major earthquake, as we have been with this new medium of communication. For years it was dirt cheap to send a piece of first class mail from Los Angeles to New York. Today, on the Internet, we send our message free. Or, do we? Internet hucksters cleverly accumulate your private data and then charge a premium for the name. If the hackers have their way with us, we could lose big bucks or maybe even our identity. It has become a feeding frenzy that continues and escalates daily.

60 Minutes II covered this very subject on April 30, 2003. The segment was entitled: “Your Private Life For Sale.” The episode’s title says it all. Then, in the June 2003 issue of Consumer Reports, page 6, the Consumers Union, parent of Consumer Reports, makes a dramatic statement: “To whom does your financial information belong? Consumers Union believes it belongs to you.” Even Proctor & Gamble agrees that the consumer owns his or her own data; a statement I confirmed direct with the company. Junk mailers are feeling the pressure. One industry writer described it as “…the privacy sky is falling.”

The problem is…we’re dealing with intangibles. It’s like the unemployed ventriloquist from northern California driving home one night. Based on home prices, Dennis Hope felt the one thing that could bring him riches was property. Then he looked out at the moon and realized the amount of unclaimed property there. He later learned the United Nations Space Treaty of 1967 prevented ‘governments’ from claiming ownership to extraterrestrial real estate--but not to individuals. He promptly staked claims to the moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter’s moon Io. Over the next 20 years he sold 400 million acres on the moon, alone, for the sum of $6 million.

When the mailing list industry discovered the value of selling your name some forty to fifty years ago, it wasn’t exactly like selling property on the moon. But, similarities do exist. You know it doesn’t belong to you because you can’t touch it. If everything is shrouded in secrecy, most people won’t know what’s going on.

I am convinced that today’s junk mail shopper is so confused by this implied mystery that the consequences of losing control over their name and personal information has just become part of their bewilderment . One of my reasons for starting this blog was to educate the public on this very subject. Next time, we’ll explore what some junk mailers charge for selling your name, along with the list people who actually flood the market with your name and private data.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Junk Mail 101: What's In A Name...Your Name?

It was called junk mail for all of the thirty-five years I was in the business. It gets that title from the shotgun effect of loading up your mailbox with unwanted advertising. To do this, the junk mailers must purchase billions of names each year. I was one of their sources, a former list peddler, huckster of your name, purveyor of the personal information you readily gave up or that was scrounged from a multitude of sources. Until I realized a simple fact.

I was selling something that really did not belong to me or the people for whom I worked. We were taking a product, your name, which was essentially a by-product in the act of your buying something or requesting information from a junk mailer, and benefiting from this act without your permission. In most cases you probably didn’t even know that it was happening. Certainly you had no concept of the real value of your name. That is, until now.

In September, 1990, the rap group, 2 Live Crew’s Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell, who had borrowed his moniker from Star Wars, and was known for his explicit song lyrics, was forced to pay director George Lucas a $300,000 out-of-court settlement for defaming his “moral wholesome” character Luke Skyywalker. That’s show biz but you get the drift on the true value of a name.

Huge databases have been built resulting in dossiers being established on most American households. Non-junk mail companies have entered the arena, starting to market your name and the personal data they have compiled on you. Legislation has passed that makes it easy for government agencies to pry further into our lives by obtaining private information from these database dossiers.

The legal profession’s Black’s Law Dictionary has a listing: “legal name,” as applying to the individual. The connotation is there is something officially legitimate about a person’s name. Continuing, the reference work says: “It is the distinctive characterization in words by which one is known and distinguished from others…” I am not an attorney but this leads me to the conclusion that our name, particularly when attached to a unique address and personal information, is sacrosanct.

The junk mailers—and eventually the lawmakers—have to face up to the fact that a person’s name is a form of media, comparable to newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. The latter charge handsomely for their communications medium. Junk mailers, on the other hand, are selling a by-product of your intimate actions with their company, while racking up sales of over $4 billion annually, with nothing going into the pocket of the name holder. It’s the only business I know where the profit margin is 60%. So, as the custodian, shouldn’t you share in these profits?

To illustrate the magnitude of this, I picked the top 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S. to demonstrate the impact of the money being made from your name and personal data. They are:

New York, NY
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA
Chicago, IL
Boston-Worcester-Lawrence-Lowell-Brockton, MA
Philadelphia, PA
Washington, DC-Maryland-Virginia
Detroit, MI
Atlanta, GA
Houston, TX
Dallas, TX

Ready for this? A whopping $823.8 million in list revenue going to the junk mail companies, each year, from just the top ten metropolitan areas. That’s over 350 million gallons of gas, with today’s prices. You could drive cross-country and back almost one million times. Did I make my point?

So maybe we should just stop worrying and learn to love junk mail. Shop ‘til you drop and let the junk mailers sell your name. But, in the meantime, join my grassroots movement to get this federal legislation passed that will give you 100% control. Like I’ve said in an earlier post, it could even supplement your Social Security. More on that later.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BLOG Bulletin: National ID Card Promises to Expose Largest Amount of Personal Data, Ever, In One Location

In my 35 years in junk mail as a list broker, I have seen humongous databases built and dismantled in a matter of hours. It’s called a merge/purge or, in layperson’s terms, the coming together of millions of names with all their personal data, to eliminate the duplicates. These computer runs can go into the hundreds of millions of names and take place repeatedly, on a 24/7 basis.

All things considered, the above could not begin to equal the impact that the newly passed Real ID Act will have on your privacy and, perhaps, the selling of your name. If you want a good overview of the Act, go to for their FAQ’s. The new ID card, being developed from current state driver licenses, is due to take effect in May 2008.

At the least, this centralized network would include your full name, address, driving history, social security number and even your birth certificate, according to the ACLU. It would also include biometric information: your DNA, retinal scans or fingerprints. What is more important—and much more alarming—is the fact that Homeland Security has the right to add to the list of your personal data. You can go to the ACLU site to voice your disappointment to your Members of Congress.

A standalone version of the Real ID Act passed the house, but only with a margin of 261 to 161. Expecting trouble in the Senate, the sponsors tacked the act on to the Iraq spending bill to insure passage. Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner drafted the bill and you might want to tell him what you think. reported, “The act was pushed through without hearings or deliberation, over the objections of a coalition of 12 Democratic Senators…” Clearly, another misguided and desperate move by this Republican Congress. goes on to analyze just how the Real ID Act could prove an asset to ID thieves. One such conclusion was the linking of all states’ databases into one nationwide database, resulting in the largest amount of personal data, ever, in one location. It’s one-stop shopping for the identity burglars. Other skepticisms include the ability of the government to secure the data with Homeland Security receiving four F’s in a row. This rating comes from the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). Visit It’s good reading before you sound off to your Congress person.

Now, for some observations:

1. Considering the bureaucracy of Homeland Security and the fact that they have to reach agreement on standards with all 50 states, how long do you think that will take?
2. If initially they require absolute identification for ID card issuance, why is it necessary to compile all the other personal information for release?
3. The requirement that the ID card must be “machine readable” could mean a magnetic strip that can house your life history of personal data, accessible each time the card is presented.

No doubt you have observations, too, and I would like to hear them and share with others.

This post Bulletin has emphasized the privacy of your name and personal data due to the enactment of the Real ID Card. We’ll get back to the taking of control and sharing the wealth in the next post.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Junk Mail 101: Congress Must Bite The Bullet and Give Us Back Our Name and Personal Information

We’re losing it folks. The control of our name and personal information is comfortably in the hands of junk mailers, along with companies outside the business that also amass gigantic databases with all your private data. You can still get to it and use it but you are no longer the sole proprietor. You’ve lost control and, although most of you don’t realize it, you’re on the road to disaster. Not every one of you will experience identity theft, suffer your Social Security number floating around precariously, or some other form of the invasion of your privacy, but it will happen to some. And it could be you.

Look at the ChoicePoint and LexisNexis incidents. Almost 500,000 names with scads of personal facts about these individuals and their households, thrown precariously into the forum of identity pilferage. And there were more: Bank of America; DSW/Retail Ventures; HSBC North America/Polo Ralph Lauren. And the list will go on.

So, how do we solve the problem? I’ll tell you how. Congress must pass federal legislation, giving consumers 100% control over the use of their name and personal information. Don’t you think your own privacy is something that should be solidly under your jurisdiction? And don’t you believe you should share in the $4 billion junk mailers make annually from the sale of your name and private data? Your answer should be a resounding YES to both questions.

Once the legislation is passed, are you willing to put out minimum effort to make all this work? Register, so the sale of your name can be documented and the proceeds placed in a fund for safekeeping. Respond to E-mails or telephone calls to confirm legitimate uses of your name. Follow up when prompted that a fraudulent transaction is taking place. Isn’t that simple? Certainly the logistics are more complex, but who could deny the overall value? Hey, you could end up supplementing your Social Security with junk mail.

If you want some excellent information on this subject, I suggest you go to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse site. Click on “Identity Theft” or “Privacy Links & Blogs” to get you started. Then surf around and find the subjects that interest you. There’s a wealth of information here and there isn’t a privacy organization out there that works harder for consumer privacy rights.

There are a few members of Congress currently focused on controlling personal data. They are Senators Charles Schumer of New York; Patrick Leahy of Vermont; Dianne Feinstein of California; Representative Edward Markey from Massachusetts. All Democrats. And, Representative Joe Barton, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a Republican from Texas. Click on their name and send them an e-mail briefly explaining this concept, and the fact that you want your name and personal information back. Tell them I sent you.

You should also visit another site I find an excellent source covering the placing of restraints on junk mail. It is “The Onslaught of the Unsolicited” post on the Notes from a Determined Hermit blog.

Please tell your friends about The Dunning Letter and encourage them to join the grass-roots effort to take back control of our name and private data. I will share all comments—unless the writer tells me otherwise—with the above members of Congress, plus any new Senators or Representatives that indicate interest in this cause. We’ll start our own lobby—I know it’s a dirty word to some—and with enough support, we can get this legislation passed.

Let me have your comments!