Empty the envelope, read the privacy bit

PERSONAL FINANCE

April 08, 2001|By EILEEN AMBROSE

BANK, mutual fund and credit-card statements may appear a little fatter than usual when they show up in mailboxes in coming weeks.

That's because, in addition to the statement and usual advertisements stuffed in the envelope, companies are inserting privacy notices.

Be careful not to toss a notice before reading it, consumer advocates warn. The notice should tell you the kind of information that is collected about you, how it's used and how the company will keep the data secure.

And, in some cases, you will be able to prohibit the company from sharing or selling your personal financial information - such as income, employment or account balances - to outside businesses and organizations.

The 1999 law that broke down barriers among financial institutions now requires them to send privacy notices to customers by July 1. Thereafter, customers will receive privacy notices annually.

Financial institutions range from banks and insurers to retailers and car dealers that gather and share information when obtaining credit for customers.

Millions of notices will be sent in coming weeks. The American Bankers Association estimates that a middle-income household can expect 10 to 15 notices.

"The biggest challenge for consumers is to actually recognize the notice," said Tena Friery, research director for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "Generally, what people do when they get a credit-card bill is they take out the bill and the return envelope and the rest of it goes in the trash."

Even though the law provides some protection, there are still plenty of cases when customers' information can be shared without their consent.

Businesses, for example, can share information with other companies within the same corporate family. Institutions can provide outsiders with customer data if it's needed to conduct day-to-day business, such as giving account numbers to the company hired to print checks. And an institution can share information with an outside business provided that they have a marketing agreement to offer the same products or programs.

"You can't put a stop to all the sharing. There are any number of exceptions there," said Ken Baebel, assistant director for the FDIC's Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs. "It does provide the consumer with a little more knowledge and a little more authority over the use of their own information."

Some companies don't share customer information with outside groups seeking to sell products or services. But in cases where a company provides personal information to third parties that don't fall within the exceptions, the company must give customers the right to opt out of having their information shared.

Customers are to be given a reasonable amount of time to opt out, which many have interpreted to be about 30 days. If you're using another bank's ATM and your information is captured and will be shared with outsiders, you may have to respond on the spot whether you want to opt out, Baebel said.

If you don't opt out within the time permitted, it will be presumed that you gave permission to share your information. "Responding is a must," Friery said. "If you say nothing, it means yes."

If you miss the deadline, you can always opt out later. But the request will apply only to future disclosure and won't retract any information that's already been circulated. Customers also may be told that under the Fair Credit Reporting Act they may request that certain information, such as a credit report, cannot be shared with affiliates, Baebel said.

Those with joint bank accounts should read the opt-out instructions carefully. Each person may be required to opt-out, and if only one does, the other account holder's information can be shared, according to the FDIC.

Customers can't sue a company for privacy rights violations under the 1999 law. Complaints should be made to the federal agency that regulates the institution or to state authorities, which may be able to take action against an institution, experts said.

Notices will differ from company to company, although they are supposed to be clear and conspicuous. If not, contact the company and ask for an explanation of any confusing terms, Friery said.

You also can use the notices to shop around for another bank or brokerage that provides the type of privacy you want, she said.

Privacy notices will be used as a marketing tool by lenders, said Richard H. Harvey Jr., chief compliance and privacy officer at Chevy Chase Bank. It's a chance for banks to show off the measures they take to protect privacy, and also a way for a bank to stand out from its competitors, he said.

Some of the largest financial institutions in the country will need to provide opt-out notices to customers, which means they are providing customer information to outsiders that may be selling products and services that have nothing to do with finances, Harvey said. Many people won't want such solicitations, he said.

"It's an opportunity to sell privacy," Harvey said.

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