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:

Information

Likely Source

Price Tag

Address

Public records/LocatePLUS

$0.50

Marriage record

Public records/KnowX

$7.95

Employment

CRA America/Employer/ChoicePoint

$13

Education

Schools/ChoicePoint

$12

Cell phone number

CRA America/Telco/Pallorium

$10

Unpublished phone number

Telco/Pallorium

$17.50

Assets (real estate, vehicles, boats)

Public records/Accurint

$6.95

Accident record

DMV/LocatePlus

$1

Lawsuits

Public records/ChoiceTrust

$2.95

Shareholder status

SEC/KnowX

$1.50

Neighbors

Public records/Accurint

$0.25

Relatives

Public records/Accurint

$3

Industry accreditation

Public record/ChoicePoint

$16

Military record

Public records/ChoicePoint

$35

Voter registration

Public records/Aristotle

$0.25

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.