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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/21/2010 8:01:02 PM ET 2010-01-22T01:01:02

Your personal information is no longer personal. It’s stored in various databases waiting to be sold to a company or organization that wants to find you or someone like you.

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The facts of your life are now just another commodity, like corn or wheat, that’s collected and sold. In the world of marketing, knowledge is power.

Armed with this data, companies can target you with a customized pitch. Some of us — you can put me at the top of the list — find this database marketing incredibly invasive and annoying.

Last month, Pam Dixon who lives near Encinitas, Calif., did some holiday shopping. A few weeks ago, she got a call from one of the stores encouraging her to come back for their post-holiday sale. Dixon never gave the store her address or phone number, but she did use her credit card.

“With my credit card number and zip code they were able to use some database to find my phone number and contact me,” she explains.

How does Dixon know that? She’s the executive director of the World Privacy Forum. She works to help people keep control of their personal information. And these days — as Dixon’s experience makes clear — it’s easy to lose control.

“Even if you are very careful with giving out your personal information to others, it is almost impossible now to totally secure your information. There will be leakage.”

When it comes to unwanted marketing pitches – you can run but you can’t hide. The best you can do is reduce the volume of unwanted marketing pitches.

Why worry?

“In some situations the type of information you reveal can be used to commit identity theft. That’s the most serious concern,” notes Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “But it can also result in phone calls, e-mail, junk mail and even faxes you don’t want.”

How we get on mailing lists
Dixon says the number one way people get on marketing lists these days is by filling out online surveys. Another sure way to get more junk mail and telemarketing calls is to enter a prize drawing at a store, fair or trade show. I never enter these things. If you do, think long and hard before you give them your cell phone number.

When you send in a warranty card, do you answer all those questions about your income, hobbies, marital status, etc.? That has nothing to do with your warranty protection. You don’t even need to return the card to get the coverage. All that information is going into a database, to make it easier to sell you something else.

Your virtual mailbox makeover
The Direct Marketing Association is largest trade group of marketers in the U.S., representing 3,600 businesses and non-profits. DMA members realize it’s a waste of money to pitch to people who don’t want to know about their products or services.

That’s why the association provides a free opt-out service called DMA Choice. You can go online and tell DMA members you don’t want to get catalogs or pre-approved credit card offers or other sorts of advertising material.

“This puts you in control or what comes in and what doesn’t come in to your mailbox,” says DMA spokesperson Sue Geramian. “You can reduce the volume of things you don’t want by up to 80 percent and you make sure you continue to get things you do want.”

For instance, you may want to stop the flood of catalogs, but get coupons and sales promotions from local stores.

Many charities share information
If you gave to the relief effort in Haiti, there’s a good chance you’ll hear from other international aid organizations. Many charities exchange mailing lists or sell the data from the information they collect.

“You may have a charity that exchanges mailing lists with another organization that has similar interest, so maybe they both can get new donors,” explains Bennett Weiner, CEO of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.

Some groups don’t do this. I checked the solicitation I received from World Vision and it says, “We respect your privacy and do not rent, sell, or exchange our mailing lists.” I like that.

If you don’t see a statement like this, look for an opt-out box that lets you say you don’t want your name or address shared. These boxes are small and easy to miss. If this is important to you, go to the charity’s Web site and check its privacy policy.

What should you do if you get a flood of letters from a charity you don’t want to donate to? You can ignore the mailing and shred them. Or you can write the group (I usually send it back in the pre-addressed envelope) and tell them to take you off their list.

The Do Not Call Registry
There are now more than 191 million phone numbers on the list. Registration is permanent; you do not have to renew. Being on the list will dramatically reduce the number of sales calls you get from legitimate telemarketers.

Con artists, who are breaking the law anyway, ignore the list. The best you can do with them is to hang up and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Remember, the Do Not Call Registry does not cover political calls, legitimate surveys and charity appeals.

“If a charity calls and you tell them you do not want to get any more calls from them, they are obligated to honor that request,” notes the BBB's Bennett Weiner.

Companies that you’ve done business with in the past 18 months are also allowed to call you, unless you tell them to stop.

The bottom line: Guard your information
Anytime you’re asked for personal information, stop and find out why the company wants it. Is there a legal reason they need it? If not, what do you get from providing that information? If there isn’t something significant in it for you, don’t give it out.

More information

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