Protecting your private information

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Think about how much you earn, the amount you have in the bank, your spending habits or the number of checks you bounced. Then think, "Whose business is it?"

It's something more consumers are asking with the growth of the Internet and mergers in the financial industry that put more personal financial information up for grabs, consumer advocates say.

"It's sort of the best of times and worst of times," said Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times, a newsletter in Washington.

The worst is that more personal information is being collected about individuals than ever, and laws don't adequately protect privacy, he said.

The best is "the public awareness, and resistance is rising to bad privacy practices," he said.

The latest tug-of-war over privacy rights is under way as federal regulators prepare to release next month the rules under which financial institutions can divulge customers' financial information to affiliates and outside companies.

As proposed, financial institutions -- which even include travel agencies -- must inform customers about privacy policies annually. The institutions can share customers' personal information, such as account numbers and balances, with affiliates, but must allow consumers to "opt out" from having that data given to outside companies, such as telemarketers.

There are exceptions. A bank, for instance, can share information with an outsider without letting customers opt out if the two companies have an agreement, such as a contract to market the lender's products. The marketer can't use the information for any other purpose, though.

Banks and their supporters maintain that financial institutions are built on trust and they won't weaken that foundation by misusing customer information.

But at a privacy seminar last month in Arlington, Va., consumer advocates said the proposed rules are full of loopholes.

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch said the rules will allow telemarketers to target the elderly for inappropriate products. Hatch, who settled a lawsuit against U.S. Bancorp for sharing customers' information with a telemarketer, predicts that more lawsuits will be filed until stricter privacy laws are adopted.

In the meantime, the burden of protecting your privacy rests with you, consumer advocates said. Here are some steps they recommend to safeguard your information:

Take advantage of any provisions available to "opt out" of having your information shared.

Begin by reviewing your bank's privacy policy, carefully. Some banks allow customers to request that their information not be passed to affiliates or outside companies, but often that option is buried in the fine print, Hendricks said.

If you don't like your bank's privacy policy, shop for a lender whose policy you do like or try smaller banks that might be less inclined to sell your information or perhaps don't have affiliates to share information with, he said.

You can also opt out of pre-approved credit offers for two years or permanently by contacting major credit reporting agencies at 888-567-8688. This won't eliminate all offers because your request isn't sent to all agencies.

Get a copy of your credit report. The contents can be the deciding factor on whether you get a loan or a job, so it's important that the information is accurate. Also, the report can tip you off if someone else has applied for credit using your identity.

If you've been denied credit recently based on information in the report, the report is free. Marylanders, unlike residents in some states, are entitled to free reports once a year from the three major credit reporting companies. Additional reports cost $8.50.

For a copy, contact Trans Union, 800-916-8800; Experian, 888-397-3742 or Equifax at 800-685-1111.

Reduce unsolicited e-mail, regular mail and telemarketing calls for five years by writing to Direct Marketing Association, which puts out a list of those not wanting to be solicited.

To reduce mail solicitations, write to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008. To limit phone sales pitches, write to Telephone Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9014, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014. To decrease unwanted e-mail, message the association at www.e-mps.org.

You can further reduce telemarketer calls by asking those that call you to put you on a "do not call" list. Under federal law, the telemarketer must honor that request for 10 years. If you are contacted again, file a written complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, Common Carrier Bureau, Consumer Complaint, 445 12th St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20554.

Marylanders have another protection. They can request that the Motor Vehicle Administration not release their driver and vehicle records to individuals and companies by calling 888-682-3772. The courts, police, insurers and other such groups will have access to your records, though.

A lot of your personal financial information out there has come from you, so be careful of what you disclose and to whom. For instance, you don't have to fill out an invasive warranty to be covered by it, privacy experts said.

"You don't have to tell them how many pets you have, what kind of car you have, what your hobbies are and how many children you have," said Mary Culnan, a Georgetown University e-commerce professor.

If you want to be notified of recalls, fill in your name and address on the warranty and leave other lines blank, she said.

When shopping online, check the site's privacy and security notices. If the policies aren't strong enough, lobby the company for more stringent protections or take your business elsewhere.

Become an activist and tell your bank that you don't want your information shared, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

"The banks can choose to ignore it. But if banks get enough of these letters, they will know that their customers are demanding stronger privacy protection than the minimum required in law," she said.

For more information on protecting your privacy, visit these Web sites: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, www.privacyrights.org; Electronic Privacy Information Center, www.epic.org; and Junkbusters Corp., www.junkbusters.com.

Without strong privacy protections, the result will be a growing distrust of businesses by customers, Culnan said. It's already happening: Culnan's students told her they use fake names online because they don't know how their information will be used.

"The message to business here is: If you want people to tell you the truth, they have to trust you," she said.

Do you have a personal finance issue of general interest that you would like to see addressed in this column? Contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com.

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