Price of peace of mind

Consuming Interests

October 31, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Nancy Davidson says the deal Macy's offered for a couple of blouses recently was hardly worth her peace of mind. On a recent shopping excursion to the Harford Mall, the 68-year-old Forest Hill resident was lured by a 10 percent discount on her $30 purchase if she opened a Macy's credit-card account. All she had to do was part with some personal information.

She provided her name, address, date of birth and data on her driver's license. But when the sales clerk asked for her Social Security number, the retired secretary immediately balked.

"We as a society are told never to give out our Social Security numbers, especially because of growing concerns about identity theft," Davidson says. "Why should a department store demand this information? More and more businesses ask for it, and more and more I refuse to give it. As a result, I was told an account could not be opened.

"I was not a happy camper," Davidson says. "I felt I was within my rights to refuse."

I hate being the bearer of bad news, so I'm going to start with a teeny bit of good news.

Davidson can say no.

In fact, privacy experts encourage consumers to say no more often to requests for highly personal data like Social Security numbers, and also less sensitive data like ZIP codes and telephone numbers, which are used to direct advertising campaigns or track the distance customers travel.

Experts also point out that many businesses have no such need for Social Security numbers. (Yeah, we're talking to you video stores, fitness centers, utility companies and medical providers out there.)

With identity theft topping the list of consumer fraud complaints last year, experts including Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of The Privacy Journal, go so far as to suggest that a Social Security number should never be handed out unless the transaction has tax consequences. Legitimate requests would include opening a bank account, buying a house, buying stocks, or getting a job (but don't give up the number until you first get the job).

"You don't want that number to be floating around in storage networks," Smith says. "You don't want to hand it over to just anyone because identity theft often originates with corrupt employees. It's wise of consumers to be concerned about this."

With that said, here comes the bad news.

Davidson might want to get used to being an unhappy camper if she continues her admirable quest for privacy.

The problem is that even though it's up to you to say yea or nay to a Social Security number request, businesses also have the right to refuse to do business with you if you don't cooperate. There is no law preventing a business from requesting the number.

"Consumers, unfortunately, are thrust into situations where they are coerced and forced into giving their Social Security numbers to complete a sale or transaction," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Businesses are strong-arming their customers."

When applying for a credit card, issuers like Macy's will contact one of three credit-reporting agencies to check an individual's financial history before extending any credit.

It's an incredibly unfortunate coincidence that bad guys and the companies scrutinizing our credit both need as much personal information about us as possible for their purposes. One needs it to commit fraud against us; the other needs it to ensure they're giving the right individual proper credit and to protect us from having our financial wherewithal co-opted.

"There are 220 million people who have credit reports and people can share the same name, same addresses and same birth dates," says Rod Griffin, manager of public education at California-based Experian, a credit-reporting agency. "So your Social Security number is an important and unique identifier to us. It's possible to get a credit history without a Social Security number, but it makes it more difficult for us to do a complete, thorough and more accurate check of an individual's history."

Griffin says the numbers are not required, but businesses are "highly encouraged" to ask for one along with other personal data to conduct credit checks. Given that encouragement, most businesses will demand the number.

So what's a concerned consumer to do?

Plenty, actually.

"Consumers can't prevent identity theft, but there's lots of steps consumers can take to minimize the chance that it will happen to them," says Claudia Bourne Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, which monitors identity-theft cases. "They should speak up to let merchants know they are concerned about how their data is going to be handled. Consumers shouldn't be afraid, but they should be prudent."

So rise up, people. Don't just blurt out your information without demanding some answers. Make it a habit to inquire if you can substitute other personal data for a Social Security number and ask four questions:

1. Why is the number needed?

2. How will the number be used?

3. What happens if you refuse?

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