Most likely, you're on some databses

Sylvia Porter

May 20, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

As processing large quantities of information becomes easier, it becomes simpler for more people to know more about you -- and there's not a lot you can do about it.

For example, compact discs, much like the ones that you buy with music recorded on them, have been adapted for use in computers. These do not play music. Instead, they hold an enormous amount of information.

You can buy a compact disc that contains an entire encyclopedia or the Oxford English Dictionary.

A little more than a year ago, a software manufacturer, Lotus Development Corp., announced that it would publish a directory called Marketplace: Households.

Recorded on compact discs, this directory would contain data on nearly half the people in the United States. In addition to personal information, the discs were to contain comments on individual likes and dislikes, purchasing patterns and other topics of use to marketers. It would have been a direct mail marketer's dream come true and probably would have overloaded letter carriers forevermore.

The fact that all this information could be compiled and distributed in such a way that anyone with a home computer could use it represents an unprecedented accomplishment.

There was one problem. When people heard about it, it made them very angry. They didn't want to be listed on the compact discs. They received quite enough junk mail and junk phone calls, thank you, and they wanted some control over dissemination of their personal statistics and records of their habits.

L More than 25,000 people wrote letters of complaint to Lotus.

Those people, and the ones who did not write to Lotus but who held the same opinion, were fighting a winning battle but a losing war. That Lotus decided not to proceed with the product doesn't mean that the vital statistics of all those individuals and families aren't in a computer somewhere.

In fact, it is a rare person who isn't listed in many computers.

Have you ever subscribed to a magazine? Have you ever bought a product that included a card asking you questions about yourself? The manufacturers did not ask those questions because, as your friend, they wanted to know more about

you. Instead, the answers went into a computer database somewhere.

More companies are making their databases available to each other. This is good business, of course. The selling company gets paid for its list. It enables other companies to focus their sales pitches. Think how frequently you have picked up the mail to discover an advertisement from some company that does business in a field of interest to you. You may have wondered how the advertiser knew about your interest. The answer is that you subscribed to a magazine about the topic, or purchased an item and filled out the warranty card or consumer questionnaire. Your name is in the computer.

This all seems harmless enough, and for the most part it is. But, for some, modern marketing is a nightmare. Fraud investigators report that swindlers have, legitimately or illegitimately, dipped into such databases, making it easy for them to select their "pigeons."

To be fair, sometimes being on databases allows a consumer to learn about products or services he or she might otherwise have missed.

It is possible to have your name removed from mailing lists, though the process is not instant and the results are not ensured.

An acquaintance, slightly uncomfortable about mailing lists but convinced there's not much he can do about them, has taken to keeping track of who is giving his name and address to whom. The process is simple: Each time he subscribes to a magazine or fills out a consumer questionnaire, he uses a different middle initial. Then by looking at the initial on the junk mail he receives, he can determine its source.

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