Yes, Everyone Is Watching You

Ever wonder why, after subscribing to a healthy-living magazine, you're blitzed with email pitches for organic supplements? You've probably noticed how those coupons printed on your grocery receipt and the ones mailed from your pharmacy are eerily familiar with your dietary and, um, digestive needs.

To quote Nirvana: "Just because you're paranoid / Don't mean they're not after you."

Commercial data brokers and consumer reporting agencies have your number -- actually, make that numbers -- and do a brisk business compiling and selling reports about everything from your health to your wealth.

These high-tech trash-pickers -- names such as Accurint, Acxiom, Aristotle, ChoiceTrust, Claritas, KnowX, LocatePLUS, Pallorium, and ChoicePoint -- do their homework. They scour public data from courthouse files, property deeds, marriage certificates, and the Census Bureau, and they even delve into credit reports, driving records, magazine subscriptions, product warranty registration cards, and grocery store scanners.

They then package and sell detailed consumer profiles to advertisers, retailers, employers, insurers, landlords, lenders, the IRS, the FBI, the DOJ, and any other entity that claims to have a legitimate need. Were you to put your personal details up for sale, here's what they'd be worth:


Likely Source

Price Tag


Public records/LocatePLUS


Marriage record

Public records/KnowX



CRA America/Employer/ChoicePoint





Cell phone number

CRA America/Telco/Pallorium


Unpublished phone number



Assets (real estate, vehicles, boats)

Public records/Accurint


Accident record




Public records/ChoiceTrust


Shareholder status




Public records/Accurint



Public records/Accurint


Industry accreditation

Public record/ChoicePoint


Military record

Public records/ChoicePoint


Voter registration

Public records/Aristotle


Source: Preemptive Media's SWIPE Toolkit.

What they know about you
Wall Street regularly states that past performance is not indicative of future returns. You, however, get no such free pass. Consumer reports tell businesses how prone you are to repeat past blunders, so they can limit their exposure to financial risk by revealing ...

  • How likely you are to default on a loan: Most of us are familiar with our credit rap sheet -- the rundown of our banking, borrowing, and bill-paying history. However, your credit report also reveals who has taken a peek at your file. Most negative notations remain on record for seven years.
  • Whether you live and drive on the edge: Insurers base premiums on your loss history reports (in other words, homeowner and auto claims), which are kept on record for five years. That's why it's a good idea to pay for small claims out-of-pocket.
  • Whether you eat your leafy greens: The Medical Information Bureau provides medical history reports on the 15% to 20% of consumers with private medical coverage -- insurance not through an employer. The contents may include common medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, as well as lifestyle issues such as a bad driving record or participation in hazardous sports. Insurance companies cannot base their coverage decisions solely on the contents of the report, but they can use it for an underwriting investigation.
  • Whether you write rubber checks: One false banking move -- a bounced check or an account closed because of insufficient funds -- and you'll be a shamed shopper. Notations remain in your file for five years or until the bank or credit union requests that the entry be deleted.
  • Whether you're prone to trashing your residence: Johnny Depp makes headlines when he trashes hotel rooms. If you're a rotten renter -- or have been to housing court -- you'll get noticed, too. A five-year record of your residential history (if reported) reveals whether you paid your rent on time or left your love shack in shambles.
  • What brand of TP you prefer: When you use a customer loyalty card to get a discount, retailers get a snapshot of your shopping patterns. This data is then used to generate coupons, tweak inventory, and even reconfigure store layout.

Data "furnishers" are required by law to make sure what they report is accurate, but the only way you'll know is to pull your own records. The good news is that you're legally entitled to a free copy of your consumer files. The bad news is that they're not kept in one central clearinghouse. The best news, however, is that we can help you get the job done in a snap with the stories listed below.

  • Post a "Do Not Disturb" sign to keep marketers at bay with the opt-out list we lovingly compiled in "Silence the Sales Pitches."

For more on protecting yourself from fraud, read about:

Consumer-finance Fool Dayana Yochim is regularly offended by the coupons her pharmacy sends to her. She has no need for anything involving a foot fungus, home deodorizer, or premoistened towelettes, thanks much.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2009, at 8:16 PM, SolidPlanning wrote:

    We recommend an easy way to minimize your exposure identity theft risk, a personal shredder.


  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2009, at 5:45 PM, Loyd51Ford wrote:

    The only way to make sure you are doing the right things to get ahead is - unfortunately - to trust no one. I guess you should say "trust by varify."

    American businesses have put more and more pressure on the consumer by tracking and manipulating them. If you want to really turn the tables on these greedy corporate rich, check out the section of "How To Survive Any Financial Crisis" on scams and how to deal with these evil doers. You can check it out yourself at the new website

    Be watchful of your actions and of any marketing you receive. Develop your own plan for financial freedom and stick to it. Don't let emotion play a role.

    Get more for free by joining the new Facebook group "Live The Lifestyle Your Family Deserves." Just search Facebook for the name and click on "Become a fan" for instant access.

    Thank you.

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