Love is blind, but credit card companies know exactly who you are
January 28, 2011
It's late in the afternoon and you've been working hard all day. You think, 'I need a quick break,' so you glance over your shoulder to see that no one is watching and you log onto Amazon or eBay to find that special little Valentine's Day gift for your sweetie.
It's all on the sly, right? Hush-hush?
Well, not exactly. The truth is that prowling around on your computer and the Internet are a whole host of tattlers ready tell whoever wants to know where you like to shop and what you like to buy. Your love may be blind, but credit card companies, banks and any number of marketers know all about you and what you're up to.
Why your Valentine's Day gift may not be a secret
These computer snitches go by various names--cookies, web beacons and history hijackers--and the privacy they steal from you has become a sore point for many consumers.
Late last year the Federal Trade Commission said it might mandate a new "do not track" button on all Web browsers that will stop the spying. Microsoft has promised that its next version of Explorer will come equipped to block the ad companies that collect information about your preferences and then send you ads for things you're likely to buy.
Although some consumers appreciate targeted advertising--such as when it's for jobs in your field--others find the snooping unsettling. The Wall Street Journal recently found that the top 50 websites in the U.S. install on average 64 pieces of tracking technology on your computer without telling you. And it's not just your computer that's affected. If you download certain apps on your smart phone, advertisers will note where you are at a particular point in time and send you coupons for a store near you.
A 2009 survey conducted by universities in Pennsylvania and California found that two-thirds of respondents were opposed to tracking, and the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog group recent found that 80 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a 'Do Not Track' registry similar do the Do Not Call Registry that put an end to those pesky telemarketing calls.
Who wants to know?
According to ABC News, companies are collecting information from consumers' online bank statements, prescription drug records, video rentals and loans. Among those who want to know about you, ABC says, are credit card companies, who may want to advertise certain credit card rates or specialty products. Insurance companies are interested in your diet and lifestyle in order to get a better bead on your overall health, ABC said.
Credit card companies will share information about you to other companies they do business with, even if you ask them not to. They'll sell it or use it to advertise their best credit card rates or to sell you specialized credit card products, such as for Disney or Southwest Airlines.
Is privacy a thing of the past?
The issue for consumers isn't so much the advertising--if you're an avid woodworker, you don't mind hearing about a great price on router bits. The issue is consent. People like their privacy.
Also, there is uncertainty as to whether the FTC's proposal is even technically feasible. According to USA Today, the opt-out mechanism might be a tracking device of its own, and how will the FTC enforce the new rules? The Internet, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, is throbbing with millions of connections, and to control the flow of information with a simple do not track button would require a rewiring of the entire Internet superstructure. Good luck with that.
So, for the meantime, just be aware that your online Valentine's Day shopping excursion isn't going to be a private adventure. You'll know when all those offers to discount chocolates and roses start showing up in your in-box.