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Monday, January 19, 2009


It can’t get much worse; I’m talking about George W. Bush’s rein over making sure the business community takes complete preference over the lowly consumer. We were simply pawns to this man and his renegade posse that almost put this country in an economic stupor. But rather than rail over the incompetence and deplorable decision-making by “W,” let’s look at how the Federal Trade Commission can change its tactics back to the agency that is supposed to stick up for U.S. citizens in the marketplace.

Of course, my primary concern is over the individual’s privacy, specifically how this relates to the identity crisis. It won’t be long before Javelin releases its 2008 report on identity fraud, and I expect, with some exceptions, it won’t look nice. As an example, in 2007, although down almost 10 percent from 2006, ID theft victims still numbered 8.4 million, and lost $49.3 billion, also down somewhat from the earlier year. The average fraud amount in 2007 went down to $5,720 from $6,278 in 2006, and on average it took you 25 hours to solve your predicament. Even if it improves in 2008 by proportion, we still have a long way to go in resolving the identity crisis.

In October of 2002, a warning headline in junk mail industry publication, DM News, “List Industry Could Be Next Target for the FTC,” cautioned junk mailers that investigations could be underway soon into some of the questionable techniques used by data brokers to sell your names and personal data. Howard Beales, then, director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, said in an October 24, 2002 meeting, “We’re very interested in pursuing investigations involving lists and list brokers.”

As a former junk mail data broker for 35 years, I filed a request with the FTC in Sept. of 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act for more specifics on this meeting, but received little because there really wasn’t much more than what was covered in the above article. Knowing what I know about the selling of mailing lists, I could have turned the get-together into a consumer rumble for the rights of individuals to their sensitive data.

Beales did say they had caught Eli Lilly releasing e-mail addresses for 600 users of Prozac; Microsoft did not maintain the level of security promised for its Passport System; and American Student List Co., along with National Research Center for College and University Admissions sold students’ names, addresses and dates of birth in the marketplace after promising they wouldn’t. All meaningful consequences to our privacy, but still not addressing the root problem: the fact that thousands of junk mail companies out there have consumers’ names and private information, most of which still think it is their "proprietary" property, to do with as they please. As if the individual name-holder has no rights in this issue, except an opt-out section in most junk mail offers that is, at best, misleading.

As far as I can tell, that was the end of any meaningful investigations into the secret world of selling names and personal data. By the way, Howard Beales resigned from the FTC about two years later and returned to academic life.

Next time: data broker and junk mail company contracts written to maintain ownership of your names and private information.

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