Do you know what a data broker is? If you’re an average American, you probably don’t, but your life is affected by their activities every single day.
Data brokers gather and store information about people, and they likely know a lot about you. They know the things you’ve bought in the past, but they also have a pretty good idea about the things you want to buy in the future. They can keep track of your salary and pay stub information. They know if you have an illness, like diabetes. Mental illnesses are catalogued too, as are addictions to alcohol, gambling and more. And that’s only the tip of the ice burg.
Tim Sparapani has been following the data broker industry for years and says you’d be amazed at the kind of information that’s being compiled about you. Your religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, and even user names are all being stored, in addition to contact information like addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers.
Of course, no list of data is complete. It all depends on your personal spending and data habits.
Where do they get this information?
A better question to ask would be, “Where don’t they get this information?”
The stores where you shop are perhaps the largest culprits. Store loyalty cards are a great way to keep track of spending habits. Datalogix, one of the nine data brokers in the United States, has information on more than $1 trillion in consumer spending across 1,000 leading brands.
Stores don’t need to get you to sign up for a loyalty card in order to share your information. Just using a credit card may be all it takes to learn more about you.
Some of the most unlikely stores and places are cataloging your information. Although it can be very hard to find out exactly who is collecting your information, even Walt Disney has admitted to sharing names, addresses, purchases, ages, and even the genders of your children.
Stores aren’t the only ones to blame for collecting information for data brokers. The internet is even better about learning potentially important facts about you and your family.
Websites on the internet that appear to be a great resource may actually exist as a way to gather your information. You may share your opinion or personal story on a website, and that information may then be catalogued. GoodParentingToday.com is just one example that engages in these practices. Your visits may even be tracked on various websites to learn more about your interests.
The data mining doesn’t stop there. Chances are, you have dozens of apps on your phone. Each and every one of them may be collecting your information, especially if the app was free. They can gain access to your address books and can even track your movements to learn about where you go throughout your day.
What do they do with our information?
So, what do they do with all that information?
The answer is likely obvious—it’s sold. It’s sold to nearly anyone with an interest in the kind of information that data brokers have to offer, which means companies and businesses who are looking to market their goods and services.
Have you ever gotten a phone call about consolidating your student loans, but haven’t looked into consolidating them? Maybe you’ve received an email promoting a sale on an item that you’ve been thinking about buying, but haven’t had the money to get? These targeted marketing campaigns get even more surprising.
A man by the name of Mike Seay received a piece of junk mail from Office Max, which wasn’t all that strange, as he had been receiving junk mail from them for years. However, the piece of mail was titled, “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” That’s right. Mike’s 17-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash, and this particular piece of mail was targeted to this event. A data broker knew that Mike’s daughter died, sold his information to Office Max, and Office Max sent mail that was catered to his situation. Never mind the fact that it wasn’t relevant…
Data brokers aren’t all bad
You likely aren’t feeling very good about data brokers after all that. Would you believe me if I said data brokers aren’t all that bad?
Data brokers actually help stimulate the economy. By allowing businesses to market directly to consumers who are most likely to purchase their products and services, the information that data brokers have to offer can boost sales. They can also bring interesting products and services to your attention that you may not have otherwise noticed.
Believe it or not, but data brokers can even help prevent fraud. By having such a wide array of information on any one particular person, companies can learn pretty quickly if someone is committing fraud on your account.
Is there anything you can do?
Even if data brokers aren’t all bad, they definitely aren’t that great either. If you want to minimize the information that’s shared about you and your family, pay with cash. Avoid sharing personal stories or information online and minimize the apps that you use. You may even want to consider leaving your cell phone at home every once in a while, just in case your movements are being tracked.
Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is now requiring data brokerage companies to provide information about how they collect and use their data. That information is being used to study best privacy practices for the industry, which will hopefully ensure that sensitive information isn’t sold.
With all that information about you floating around out there, it’s no wonder that identity theft is such a huge problem. For greater peace of mind, consider signing up for an identity theft protection plan.