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Information For Sale

Information Peddling: A Disturbing Trend

by David A. Berger
Ann Arbor, Mich.

An alarming thought...

Within seconds, a computer user with Internet access zips a corporate database (consolidating several files into one) and e-mails it, without fear of detection, to interested bidders throughout the world!

Whom do you trust?

Recently, around 7:00 AM, I received a phone call from someone in England asking for the person in charge of the company's databases. The caller knew the best time to reach a database administrator is early in the morning—before anyone comes in. I replied, "I'm in charge of all the databases."

After several minutes of chit chat, the caller finally disclosed his reason for calling. He was allegedly performing a personnel search for a German company and wanted me to send him a copy of my employee database. We never got to the money issue, since I cut him off. He obviously found me through my Website——which exhibits the books and articles I've written. What he didn't realize was I didn't own a large corporation.

Have Rolodex—will travel

Once, during a job interview, I was asked if I'd be bringing my Rolodex with me. Obviously, the prospective employer was seeking someone with instant access to new customers. You'd be surprised how often this question is raised when someone changes jobs. The bigger the database you can bring over to the new employer, the more money you're worth. Because it's difficult to catch and prosecute people using such tactics, Rolodex trading is in use more than anyone likes to admit, even though it's usually illegal.

Discount cards—friend or foe

If you think your store purchases are private, think again. When I shop at local grocery or drug stores and use a discount card, I refuse to give my address because the information is usually tracked and sold for marketing purposes. Here's an example of what can happen. You buy over-the-counter medicine using a discount card and several weeks later are deluged with advertisements from pharmaceutical companies. If you have to make confidential purchases, avoid using a discount card attached to your name. Typically, you can use a nameless card kept at a cash register.

Virtually everything's for sale

Nearly everyone subscribes to magazines, clubs, associations, organizations or shops via mail order. I recently threw out all my outdated mailing list directories and emptied an entire bookcase! Databases of subscribers and customers are worth considerable money and many are for sale. I found this example in a recent edition of DM News: Victoria's Secret's new list of catalog customers fitting a specific profile—those who spent $100, range in ages from 25 to 45 and have average incomes of $50,000. Such lists are invaluable to direct marketers.

Credit card game

Here's how credit card companies play the information game. In a DM News story, Preferred Hotels & Resorts used American Express' Platinum cardholders database to find two pieces of information for use in its upcoming direct marketing initiative. The first was basic data—cardholders who were loyal Preferred quests. The second piece of critical data was Preferred customers who spent more time at competing hotels. By using American Express' data intelligence, Preferred obtained information it couldn't get anywhere else.

Hijacked at the speed of light

It was also reported in DM News that as many as twenty-one publishers whose files are hosted by a reputable online list company thought their subscriber database had been hijacked. There were reportedly up to two million names stolen and used in pornographic e-mail campaigns.

Privacy policy—meaningless in the end

Failing dot-com companies are selling once-thought-private customer information as they scramble to find and sell assets to appease creditors. Moreover, whenever a company (online or brick and mortar) is sold its databases often become the property of the acquiring company. This information may include medical records, purchasing and credit histories.

Who's got your e-mail address?

In order to track how an e-mail address gets circulated, I once registered with MSN using this alias— A different company, Real Audio, sent me e-mail under that alias shortly after. Real Audio's e-mail stated I recently registered with them, and they had my permission to e-mail me. However, if this fact were true, I'd have used the e-mail address This incident clearly demonstrates the ease and speed with which private information changes hands.

Why not unsubscribe?

It may be better not to unsubscribe when you receive unsolicited e-mail with vague or cryptic return address, especially when your e-mail address is not displayed in the "To" field. By replying, you may well confirm your e-mail address exists. Consequently, you have been registered in their database, and opened the floodgates.

David Berger is a sales and marketing consultant, living in Ann Arbor. He may be reached at or (734) 741-8913.