You can't stop data brokers from harvesting your most intimate personal details, including what you buy, how much you make and even how healthy you are. But you can limit what they see.
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"For the most part, we don't have control over that information," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Data brokers collect information from so many different sources -- including public records, in-store transactions and online browsing -- that it's virtually impossible to go about your life without being spied on. "You literally would need to live on an island with no access to anyone," says Stephens.
However, there are steps you can take to safeguard your secrets and, in some cases, control what's being said about you.
If you don't mind sharing a certain amount of intel with other businesses, you may even be able to turn the tables in your favor and benefit from the data collection with better deals and more enticing offers. Here are six expert tips for living with the data collection and protecting at least some of the information you want to keep confidential.
1. Shop Discreetly
Data brokers routinely mine your purchases for insights into who you are, what you like and what experiences you're going through. For example, a data broker may use your purchasing history to guess whether you're getting married or having a baby. They may also use it to gauge your financial stability and make predictions about your health.
According to a May 2014 Federal Trade Commission investigation, data brokers use a variety of data sources, including credit and debit card transaction data, to segment consumers into various categories, such as "allergy sufferer," "senior products buyer," "brand medication conscious" or "diabetes interest."
The data generated from anything you buy over the counter is frequently sold, says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum -- if you use a credit or debit card. So if you don't want data brokers to know you're a compulsive gambler or that you're trying to control your cholesterol or weight, don't make those types of purchases with plastic. "If you think a purchase is sensitive, pay in cash," says Dixon. Or buy a gift card, she says, and use it like cash.
And that store loyalty card you're using? Ditch it if you're sensitive about data tracking, says Stephens. It doesn't matter if you use plastic or cash with your loyalty card, as those track everything you buy. And retailers often sell that information to data brokers.
In addition, if you're shopping online, consider using a service that masks your credit card purchases, such as Abine's Masked Cards service, adds Dixon. "This will reduce what data brokers get on you," she says.
If you're purchasing something you don't mind data brokers knowing about, go ahead and use your card. For example, "If you're buying something that shows you're already in awesome shape or you're really active, pay via credit," says Dixon.
That way, you can influence what data brokers think they know about you and control the information that's shared with other companies, such as insurers, financial service providers and health analytics companies.
"You want to make sure you get on some of those lists like 'fit and sporty' and stay off lists that tag you as unhealthy or financially unstable," she says. To do so, "game the system," says Dixon. Switch up your payment methods and only use credit for purchases that highlight your stability.
2. Control Your Browsing History
Your online activity is a rich source of information for data brokers, so be careful what you post. For example, "don't talk about your medical conditions on Facebook or social media because there's always the possibility that information could be shared," says Stephens.
If you're using a "free" service or a "free" app on your smartphone or the Web, be aware that the price you're paying for that privilege is typically your data. If you "don't want to play that game, stop," says Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com. "Facebook is a perfect example. If you don't want your data being collected, then stop posting it. If you are downloading mostly free apps on your smartphones and don't want your data being used to sell and market to you, then stop doing that."
If you want to browse the Web without being followed by marketers and data brokers, disable third-party cookies or download a browser extension such as Privacy Badger that blocks "nonconsensual tracking." It's also a good idea to make a habit of deleting all your cookies before you shut off your computer at night, says Dixon, since you may want to temporarily allow first-party cookies while you're browsing to nimbly use the Web.
In addition, consider installing an IP masking service, such as Hotspot Shield or an encryption service such as Tor, says Siciliano, since companies frequently use your IP address to scope you out. "They use that to gather a lot of information about you," he says. "They cross reference your email address with your IP address and all other data points." You can also use a private search engine, such as HideandSearch and DuckDuckGo, to shield your search queries. Unlike Google, they don't collect and save your data.
If you don't care whether a data broker knows you shop frequently at the Gap, however, go ahead and leave your privacy settings off, say experts. You could potentially score better deals that way on stuff you actually want to buy.
3. Be selective with your data You may even want to switch back and forth between private browsing and nonprivate browsing if you're interested in sharing only a limited amount of data. For example, you can directly influence the ads you see by deliberately clicking on certain ads when visiting trusted websites or by Googling certain search terms, says Tom Johnson, vice president of strategic alliances at Zoot Enterprises. That helps clue marketers in to what you're interested in and make it more likely you'll see deals you want.
You can also influence the kinds of offers you get by selectively downloading apps from businesses you trust, such as a favorite retailer or your local bank, or by applying for a store credit card or participating in a frequent buyer program. "Many businesses will have special rewards cards where they send you coupons because they want you to come back," says Kevin Haney of SavvyonCredit.com. "The more you use a particular establishment, the better the deals will be."
Engaging with a company's social media page is also a good way to save some extra cash since businesses are doing all they can to attract new followers, says Johnson. For example, "if you're comfortable sharing your data, go out and check your bank's Facebook site," he says. "There are a lot of offers that are available there that you just wouldn't get otherwise."
4. Don't share everything If you decide to selectively share your data online, be mindful of the content. Your personal details could potentially be used to figure out your passwords or crack open a security question, says Siciliano. "Just because somebody has your preferences based on your online activity, that doesn't mean harm is going to befall you," he says. However, "the security implications come about when people are posting all kinds of data that could be used for passwords, such as your mother's maiden name."
Also, think twice about what kinds of forms you fill out since many forms are routinely sold to data brokers. Any time you fill out a sweepstakes form or survey or register with a website, that information could be sold to other companies. Change-of-address forms are also typically shared with data brokers. So are warranty cards, which you don't need to fill out anyway. "That warranty is good whether you send it in or not," says Dixon.
In addition, be careful about sharing your primary email address since data brokers frequently use email to identify consumers and match them with other data.
"For data brokers to compile information about you, there needs to be a way to connect the dots," says Stephens. Common email addresses are an easy way to do it. If you don't want your data to be connected, use different email addresses for shopping online or for registering with a website, says Stephens. Or consider using an email masking service such as MaskMe. "To the extent that you can frustrate the ability of the data broker to connect the dots, you're helping protect your information."
5. Protect Your Reputation
Data brokers want to know whether you're rich, poor or feckless with your money and will try to peg you into categories, such as "high-end shopper" or "financially challenged." One common way they do so is by tracking the kinds of credit products you use. For example, "anyone who takes out a payday loan tends to end up on suppression lists," says Dixon. Or they're targeted with similar products.
Avoid using high-interest credit products, such as subprime credit cards or payday loans, and don't take out a card at a retailer that's considered "low-end."
If you've already used a subprime product, do what you can to improve your creditworthiness so that you'll qualify for better products down the line. "You actually have to repair your data broker reputation," says Dixon. One way to do this is to "be proactive," she says. "You go look for the offers. If you just wait for the offers, you're going to be getting the credit they think you deserve."
Data brokers also look at whether you shop around for better deals, says Thomas Nitzsche of Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solution. So if you're in the market for credit or insurance, be conspicuous and let people know you're looking. Otherwise, "If you're not somebody who does that, then a company might not give you the best rate."
6. Consider Opting Out
It's virtually impossible to opt completely out of data sharing since there are thousands of data brokers out there and only a handful will allow you to opt out of having your information sold to other companies. But you can at least opt out from some of them. The World Privacy Forum compiled a list of data brokers and consumer reporting companies that allow you to opt out of having your information sold.
You can also opt out of a limited number of unwanted ads by visiting DMAChoice.org.
In addition, you can opt out of prescreened credit offers by visiting optoutprescreen.com. "If you opt out of prescreen offers of credit, it will take you off so many lists," says Dixon. However, it may also prevent you from getting exceptional offers, Johnson adds.
Your Bottom Line
Think twice about the trail of information you leave behind when you go about your day. Unlike consumer reporting agencies, data brokers aren't subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act -- they don't have to tell you what they're collecting, nor do they have to correct your information if it's wrong.
The Federal Trade Commission has asked Congress to step in and regulate the information data brokers are collecting so you have more control over your data. But until that happens, it's up to you to keep an eye on the information you're disclosing and protect what privacy you have left.