How to Avoid Everyday Privacy Risks

Survey shows that most people aren't aware of how their personal information is used.

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Think your information is safe when you sign up for that grocery discount card or product warranty? Think again, suggests a new survey from ProQuo, a company that helps consumers manage access to their personal information.

Many adults put their personal information at risk when they engage in everyday activities, including applying for a loan, requesting information about a product, donating to a political campaign, and even getting married and having a baby, according to ProQuo. Companies trade and build databases full of personal information, which they then use to market to consumers, says Steve Gal, chief executive of the company. Consumers shouldn't refrain from those activities (obviously in the case of marriage and children), but rather take extra steps to protect their information, Gal says.

The company found that over 60 percent of respondents were unaware that donating to a political campaign or returning a product registration card placed their personal information—including home address, phone number, and E-mail—at risk for unwanted use. Without consumers' knowledge, that personal information is often shared with dozens of other companies, Gal says. While much of it doesn't include Social Security numbers or lead to fraud, it does mean that companies know far more about consumers—from their shopping habits to whether they are considering buying a new house—than they realize.

If consumers apply online for a mortgage, for example, just to see how much they could get approved for, the credit bureaus are informed and then pass on that information to their clients, Gal says. If consumers sign up for a wedding or baby registry, that information is recorded and passed on to other retailers that may be interested in marketing to them, he adds. "You get inundated [with ads] each time," Gal says.

Instead of avoiding such conveniences or happy life stages, consumers can take steps to protect themselves from unwanted marketing:

  • ProQuo removes consumers' information from company databases at their request, free of charge.
  • The Federal Trade Commission recommends opting out of unwanted solicitations by contacting the three largest credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, and asking them to stop sharing personal information. The FTC's website provides their addresses and a sample letter.
  • The Direct Marketing Association, an industry group, also allows people to opt out of receiving direct-mail marketing from its members for five years.