Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Give Them Your Zip Code (and Meet Donny, My Deceased Conjoined Twin)

Next time you're paying by credit card in a store and they ask for your zip code, make one up. If you give them your real zip code, it's very nearly the same as offering your address, phone, age, social security number, mother's maiden name, etc.. Because they can find you and get all that info anyway.

If you've ever tried to track down an old friend, you sort of knew this. Using a service like Veromi or USSEARCH, you quickly discover that you need to distinguish somehow, and geographics is the way. Plug in the location where someone lives - or even once lived - and you've probably got them, unless the name is super common. And once you've got them, you've really got them. These services might not give up the full privacy goods without being paid $25, but that person has been thoroughly got. The Database knows all about them. And, naturally, Veromi and USSEARCH aren't the only operations with access to The Database.

When you give Target or Walmart or Radio Shack your name (as you do when you pay with a credit card) and your zip code, you are (so long as you're not John Smith) fully got. They know which Andrea Hallsberg you are, and they know pretty much everything else, too. It's not full-on Orwellian, of course; they don't want to persecute you...they just want to learn more about you, and track the things you buy and where you buy them, because they like you and want to help you buy lots more things by letting you know all about them without subjecting you to less interesting ads less well-tailored to your needs and preferences (yep, just like your Gmail!).

As a restaurant critic, I always carried an extra credit card with a fake name. The bank didn't care; for all they knew, Donny Fossbinder was my son or brother or gay partner; Donny's card had my same account number and I was of course responsible for his charges. You can do the same, if you'd like. Of course, it was only a matter of time before I was crushed under marketing, spam, and junk mail directed at Donny. It's sort of like carrying around the heavy corpse of a conjoined twin (and I speak from experience). But at least Donny and I are now moving targets, changing zip codes like we change our socks. Cuz that's just how we roll.

2 comments:

Richard Stanford said...

They generally ask for your zip code in order to get marketing data whether or not you're paying with a credit card. You can always answer that question with, "No thanks," rather than making something up.

If the clerk has to manually enter your card number, however, your zip code is often used as a fraud-detection device and if you don't give them the billing zip on the account your charge may not go through.

James Leff said...

Richard - re: graceful decline, see this:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamtanner/2013/06/19/theres-a-billion-reasons-not-to-give-stores-your-zip-code-ever/

Re: fraud detection, that's only for remote transactions (phone and internet). No zip's required when you're present to sign card.

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