Purchases can reveal a lot about you — whether you have kids, your vices, your clothing size, your hobbies and even health problems.
That’s why big data is big business. A 2013 Direct Marketing Association study found that in 2012, $156 billion was spent on marketing services that used the collection of individual online shopping habits. And the association says data marketing fueled 676,000 jobs.
But what really gets me? Data brokers can collect details on what we buy with debit or credit cards, and they don’t have to tell us.
A May 2013 report from the Federal Trade Commission revealed that data brokers buy detailed, specific information about consumer purchases from retailers and catalog companies.
Data brokers, for the most part, are very secretive about how they operate and what data they collect. Unlike consumer reporting agencies, such as the big three credit bureaus, data brokers are not required by law to show consumers their files or correct inaccurate information, according to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
But one big broker, Acxiom, created AbouttheData.com to let consumers take a look at some of the information that’s been collected about them.
Consumers shouldn’t expect too much from this small move toward transparency, though. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes privacy in the digital age, consumers who check AbouttheData.com are not getting a complete picture.
Acxiom collects about 1,500 pieces of data per consumer, and has information on more than 700 million consumers, according to the foundation. However, on AbouttheData.com, Acxiom shows you only some of the data they have on you, according to the foundation.
I decided to check my Acxiom report to see what it reveals and whether the information is correct. To register, I had to provide my birth date, address and the last four digits of my Social Security number.
I then got to see my report, or at least the part Acxiom was willing to share with me, which was divided into six categories:
- Characteristic data
- Home Data
- Household vehicle data
- Household economic data
- Household purchase data
- Household interests data
Only two categories contained data. Under characteristics, Acxiom correctly listed my birth date, household size (two), education level (college), the fact that I vote and my political party (Democrat).
But the household economic data section listed my estimated household income range as under $10,000. I have no idea where they got this information, as my husband has a good job as a college professor, and I’ve been successfully self-employed for 10 years. We’re a solidly middle-class couple.
I’m not the only consumer about whom Acxiom’s got it wrong. Forbes.com wrote about a married Harvard professor with a doctorate who was listed as a single guy with only a high school education. Forbes also mentioned a woman who steers clear of firearms and was described as an avid hunter, while a childless woman who buys a lot of gifts for nieces and nephews was listed as a mom.
I have no idea how my incorrect information might be affecting me, or whether I should bother to change it. I really don’t want to give this shadowy company any correct information about myself. In fact, Forbes quoted a data security and privacy professor as saying AbouttheData.com might be “bait” to get consumers to correct bad information about themselves.
I contacted Acxiom to get their take on AbouttheData.com, but through a public relations representative, they refused to talk.
So, when I click on Household Purchase Data and see that Acxiom has no “no data available” about me for that category, does that mean they really have no data about the many purchases I’ve made on my debit and credit cards? Or does it mean they’re just not letting me see the information they have?
The Federal Trade Commission recommends that Congress enact laws to force data brokers to be more transparent and accountable. I hope the day will come soon.
In the meantime, checking your Acxiom report is a simple way to get a glimpse of some of the information data brokers have gathered about you — even if it’s totally wrong.