Find Out What Marketers Know About You

November 2013

Never heard of Acxiom? Me neither, until recently. They're the world's largest processor of consumer data. And they know about you. They know how much money you make, whether you have pets, what your interests are, what car you drive — even whether you stand to inherit some money or have "senior needs."

According to the New York Times, they collect, store, analyze, and market billions of tidbits of consumer data — data they sell to banks, insurance companies, retailers, and others.

Their spin: if companies are going to market to you, you might as well be exposed to stuff that interests you.

The government's take: consumers ought to know what you've got on them. After all, consumer reporting agencies are required to give you a free copy of your credit report, so why shouldn't data brokers be more transparent?

To that end, the FTC has recommended to Congress they pass a law requiring data brokers to reveal what they know. And sensing the prevailing winds, Acxion launched a new website in September that gives you a hint of what they know.

Point your web browser at aboutthedata.com.

Of course, they don't want just anyone accessing their site and finding out personal info about you, so to access your information you need to first enter details about who you are, including your name, email address, last four digits of your Social Security Number, and date of birth. Once in, you'll see a sampling of what they know in six categories.

So what do they know about Jim Karpen? In the category Characteristic Data they correctly identify my date of birth, age range, gender, and marital status. But in the next category, Home Data, I've got them stumped. They have no data on me, likely because I live in university-supplied housing.

But the Household Vehicle Data nails it: Chevrolet 2004 Malibu Maxx. (Though they seem to be unaware that my 1995 Buick Park Avenue made its sad journey to the junkyard a couple years ago.)

For Household Economic Data, they estimate my annual income about double what it actually is. Ha ha, fooled them — though I guess I'd rather marketers think I make less money than more, since they might be less inclined to market to me.

Oddly, in the Household Purchase Data category they say I've made only two purchases, totaling $153. They break it down into offline and online purchases and the average number of dollars spent per purchase. It does make me curious why they don't know more about me here.

They certainly nail my interests in their Household Interest Data category: computers, PC Internet/online service user, consumer electronics, and reading magazines.

The New York Times says they know way more than they're telling, but the company responded by saying they intend to keep adding categories of data.

Here's the interesting part: they let you edit the data they have on you, saying "Please suppress or correct any data that is in error." You also have the choice of opting out. But Acxion advises against that. According to their website, "We have come to expect companies will make their interactions with us personal. We no longer want to receive mass marketing — getting bombarded with ads that have no relevancy to our lives."

Bottom line: If you're going to get bombarded, you might as well get bombarded by stuff that interests you.

The FTC responded to the site by saying it's a good first step. But mostly the critics are complaining that they don't reveal more data, nor does Acxiom give a clue about their high-powered consumer-tracking techniques. (They do, however, outline their general sources of information on their website, such as publicly available information, information from surveys you fill out, product registrations/warranties, and the "cookies" maintained by your web browser.)

Also, it would be good to know what they do with the data. According to the Times article, Axciom markets a service that lets their customers, such as a retailer, match a person's purchase history with that person's name, nickname, e-mail address, home address, and mobile and landline phone numbers. Yikes.

So let's see if I can rustle up a cliché here. Ah yes, "It's a new world." I once asked my uncle if he had a driver's license when he was a young man. He said back in the 1930s there weren't any driver's licenses. He said people didn't need IDs, "because everybody already knew who you were." That was back when your world was your neighborhood.

Today we're citizens of the world, and Acxiom knows who you are.

This Month's Hot Tips

SelectOut lets you opt out of online tracking. TinEye lets you find out if someone has "borrowed" your photos.

© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen