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Hot on the Web

Using the Web to protect your privacy, credit

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 26, 2007
(Issue 2504, Disaster Planning and Recovery)

While the Web doesn't give us any legal rights we didn't already possess, it can make it a bit easier to take advantage of those we do have.

For instance, exercising the rights the Constitution and Congress have given us to protect our privacy and financial standing. Rather than sending letters to different government agencies and industry trade groups to keep credit card companies from sending us new applications, or to keep telemarketers from calling you, or to see what's on your credit report, you can accomplish all of these things online.

It's certainly lowered the inertia barrier – it's a lot easier to spend a few minutes filling out a form online than it would be to write a letter, find the address of where to send it, print it, address the envelope and find a stamp.

So, here are some quick tips on how to protect yourself (courtesy of a letter sent out to San Diego media members by the local branch of the ACLU – as much as I've criticized them here for their inconsistencies in defending free speech, I ought to give them credit for this lovely bouquet of free ideas):

Do Not Call list

Do you still get various businesses calling you trying to sell you something? Invariably, the call comes during dinner, and invariably, unless your last name is Smith or Jones, they butcher the pronunciation. (Okay, maybe I'm just being a bit touchie on that one.)

You can still add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry. Now, some groups are exempt from the federal legislation that created this registry. Churches for one. Political parties. And any business with which you have an ongoing relationship. (So your credit card company is likely to keep trying to get you to purchase – with a free 30-day trial period! – insurance that will pay for your premium in the event you are disabled or become unemployed ... think I've heard that spiel a few times too many?)

Still, you can eliminate all those businesses that don't have but would very much like to have an ongoing relationship with you.

And restore some peace and quiet to your dinner table.

The Web site (which is run by the U.S. government, specifically the Federal Trade Commission) for the registry is pretty basic and self-explanatory. Add your phone number and an e-mail address for confirmation, and click Submit. Couldn't be easier.

(I suppose this does lend itself to abuse, in that you could enter your neighbor's phone number in here even though they enjoy the phone calls trying to sell them magazine subscriptions, time shares or affordable life insurance for just pennies a day – but in the grand scheme of potential abuse, I'd be inclined to rate that one pretty darn low.)

End those pre-approved credit card offers

I think it was about 10 minutes after I got my first credit card that I got my first offer from a competitor.

Sometimes the offers are pretty good – change banks, and you can cut your interest rate in half for a year or more.

But say you've paid all your credit cards down and are content to simply carry one, from your local bank, and don't want the clutter (or the dead trees needed to print all those offers).

The consumer credit reporting companies – the clearinghouses that keep the databases that comprise your credit report – have an online service now where you can opt out of those offers:

Since nearly every bank that issues credit cards subscribes to the services of one of the four participating clearinghouses (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion, Innovis), it should pretty much put an end to any further credit card pitches. The only possible exception would be the co-branded credit cards that groups like alumni organizations now offer as a fund-raising tool (with a kick-back from the card-issuing bank for every account or activity on the account).

They do ask for your date of birth and Social Security Number here; the site seems legit, but if you're uneasy, their FAQs say you don't have to give that information – your name and mailing address is enough.

I know I'd be more comfortable only giving that.

Stop the real-world spam

How often do you go out to get the mail and come in with a bunch of flyers for carpet-cleaning services, the new chiropractor in town and Chinese take-out?

Yeah, me too.

It's no better than spam: Unrequested, annoying and unwanted.

And unlike e-mail spam, you can actually stop some of the direct-mail spam.

The Direct Marketing Association offers a service to remove your name from most direct-marketing. Now, not all of it – the stuff just sent to your home with no name on it ("Our neighbor at ....") will continue to come.

But you can at least thin the herd at the DMA's web site.

There is a $1 charge (payable by credit card!) for this service, but it's a short form, easy to use, and hopefully at least somewhat effective.