Consumer privacy a thing of the past
With barely a murmur of protest, much less a roar of outrage, from consumer advocacy groups or voters, all-powerful banking and insurance interests in Sacramento are about to crush a critical consumer privacy bill.
If successful, which seems a certainty, the blow will be felt by everyone who has ever gotten a loan, used a credit card or opened an Individual Retirement Account.
In short, the financial history and habits of anyone who doesn’t use cash to transact business will be wide open for big money to fleece or grease.
The state Senate passed a bill Monday that would require banks or insurance companies to get permission from consumers before sharing or selling consumers’ personal information. However, intense lobbying by big money, and Gov. Gray Davis’ vow to veto the bill, will surely shoot consumer privacy down in flames.
If banks and insurance companies are able to trash such a bill, consumers, who may have felt like they were wearing a bikini to the barbecue, will now feel au naturel.
Now every time a person applies for a loan, buys a car, applies for health insurance or buys a new computer with a credit card, his/her whole consumer history, including personal spending habits, will be about as private as a billboard on Times Square – to just about everyone, that is, but the consumer.
Financial privacy has been a fast-fleeting right over the past decade, but defeat of this bill will give almost unlimited power to big money to barter and trade personal information to an unprecedented degree.
Just how nightmarish this scenario has become was driven home for me in three unrelated incidents in the last week alone.
In the first, I sought information about a problem I was having with a new computer. I get “spammed” more than 35 times a week – a good portion from businesses trying to sell me computer hardware or software – so I didn’t elect to register my computer when I bought it. But when I called the 800 number for some assistance, I was first asked a litany of questions, including my home phone number. I refused to answer. And they refused to assist me.
The very next day, I got a letter from a credit card company that sent me a credit card I didn’t request, never used and frankly didn’t even know I had.
The letter was ominous: “I am sorry to inform you that we can not extend further credit as your credit rating has dropped,” read the letter, with the enveloped stamped for “For immediate attention” and “Confidential.”
Shaken, I tried to get my credit information from the company. “I am sorry,” said the snippy operator from the credit card company that I never knew existed, “but that information is confidential.”
Here is a credit card company that knew considerably more about me than I knew about them. Even more frightening was this company knew critical information about me that I wasn’t allowed to know.
However, I didn’t have to wait long to find out my credit rating. It took buying a car over the weekend to realize that there was nothing so wrong with my credit that a major purchase couldn’t overcome.
Fortunately, the man at the car dealership was kind enough to show me my credit history, but would not allow to make me a copy. There it all was, from my past due student loan to a nursing school I dropped out of in the ’70s to a bounced check dating from 1983 to my greatly improved credit rating as I was cured of arrested adolescence.
But even all that information isn’t enough for banks and insurance companies. They want to know what I buy, what I read, where I shop, what kind of health I am in and where I have lived. What’s worse is that they want to trade this information with everyone but me.
Consumer privacy isn’t a problem for those who don’t mind spam, unsolicited calls, junk mail or rude intrusions about personal information.
But for me, I have had enough. Any more, and I could get arrested for indecent exposure.
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Hiking the spectacular trails around Tahoe this time of year generally means you’ll encounter some snow. Sadly, that’s not the case this year.