You Can Run, But It's Tough To Hide From Marketers

For years, Lisa Tomaino kept her address secret. She and her husband Jim, a policeman, wanted to make it as hard as possible for the crooks he had put away to find out where they lived.

But last year, Lisa had a baby. So much for her big secret. Within six weeks, she was inundated with junk mail aimed at new mothers. The hospital had sold her name and address to a direct-marketing company, and soon she was on dozens of other lists. Efforts to get off them proved fruitless. "It was a complete violation of our right to privacy," she declares.

Private citizens, privacy watchdogs, and a handful of lawmakers have railed for years about Big Brotherism by business. But when politicians balance industry's interest in reaching markets against the customers' right to privacy, marketing usually wins. "Existing laws regulating privacy simply aren't effective," gripes Robert S. Bulmash, president of Private Citizen Inc., a public advocacy group in Naper- ville, Ill.

Marketers are keenly aware of the public's reaction to their unwanted attention. After all, it's their job to stay in touch with the preferences of consumers. "People worry about what we know about them and how we're going to use it, and that's legitimate," says Richard Barton, a senior vice-president for the Direct Marketing Assn. (DMA) a Washington-based trade group.

But vendors of marketing data argue that any intrusion on privacy from selling lists is offset "by the significant potential gain to consumers from the special offers and products offered by direct marketers," says Harry Gambill, president of Trans Union Corp., a Chicago-based credit bureau.

The industry has largely staved off regulation by convincing the federal government that it can police itself. The DMA, for example, runs a phone number for people who want their names removed from mailing lists. But relatively few consumers use it, and those who do contend that their names come off some, but not all, lists. "It's really meaningless," says Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times. "It's just a public relations effort."

Lawmakers are now mulling a measure that could limit the ability of state motor vehicle departments to give out information about licensed drivers. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sponsored the Senate version after a deranged man used California driver records to track down a young TV actress, whom he killed.

DOLLARS FOR STATES. The proposed curbs are part of the controversial crime bill, which was resuscitated in the House and sent to the Senate in late August. But the restrictions would have limited impact. Many states objected to a ban on the release of driver information, arguing that they need the revenue from the sale of lists. The whittled-down bill now enables motorists to opt out of having their names sold. Consumer advocates complain that such provisions don't work because most are written in tiny type.

Longstanding laws, such as the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act, aren't much better, according to privacy experts. The statute is supposed to prevent credit agencies such as TRW, Equifax, and Trans Union from releasing financial information about a person except for "legitimate" business needs, such as a credit check.

Legitimate needs, however, have never been clearly defined. In a January, 1993, decision against Trans Union, a Federal Trade Commission administrative law judge ruled that the law bars the use of credit information to develop mailing lists. In response, TRW Inc. stopped using its credit data to develop lists, but it still sells lists based on demographic information it collects. And Trans Union has chosen to fight the ruling.

As marketing techniques become more sophisticated, the privacy of the Lisa Tomainos of the world will grow increasingly difficult to protect. And marketers will do everything they can to make sure remaining anonymous doesn't get any easier.

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