Privacy notices get scant attention from consumers

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Many Americans greeted the billion-plus ''privacy notices'' in the mail recently with a hook shot into the trash can. Now that big yawn may become a collective ''oops.''

It turns out those fine-print-filled envelope-stuffers weren't your typical junk mail.

They give people a say in how far companies can spread around a mountain of personal information -- everything from monthly income and Social Security numbers to credit card spending habits and account balances.

It all adds up to a gold mine of information for telemarketers, direct mailers, retailers and others who want to identify the people most likely to buy their products or services.

''If you just think about what's on your monthly credit card account statement, there's a lot of revealing information there,'' says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer organization based in San Diego.

Under federal law, today is the deadline for banks, credit unions, insurance companies, mortgage providers, brokerage houses and other businesses that collect personal financial information to mail out notices telling people how they handle it. And if companies want to sell that personal information to nonaffiliated businesses, they have to give consumers a chance to say no -- known as ''opting out.''

Buried in the fine print, many of the notices offer toll-free numbers to call or forms to mail back that give consumers a limited right to block release of their information. Consumers are under no deadline and can opt out at any time.

Nikos Mikalis, a retired clothing designer from Ashland, Ore., is kicking himself for pitching his privacy notices in the trash. Now he's backtracking to notify banks, credit card companies and other businesses not to spread around his private information.

''I just took all of that junk mail and threw it out,'' he said. ''It just ticks me off that I have to go to all this trouble to tell them that they don't have the right to exploit me.''

Just about everyone is getting the notices -- some people have been inundated with dozens -- but not many have paid much attention.

A survey last month by the American Bankers Association found that just 36 percent of Americans said they had read their privacy notices, 22 percent hadn't bothered and 41 percent didn't remember getting them or hadn't received them.

Few have opted out so far -- less than 1 percent by some estimates.

John Byrne, the banking association's general counsel, says that is because many people see advantages in having their personal information spread around: They can get catalogs, discount offers and other enticements directly tied to their interests.

''We've made the case that information-sharing will help them,'' he said.

Oliver Ireland, an attorney who helps companies comply with the privacy rules, found his mailbox filled with catalogs for discount sailing equipment after he bought a sailboat.

''I was relatively happy about it,'' said Ireland, a former Federal Reserve associate general counsel who helped draft the privacy rules.

Consumer groups, for their part, believe the opt-out rate is low because many of the privacy notices are deliberately densely written. A private ''readability'' analysis of 34 privacy notices found that most were written at a third- or fourth-year college reading level and some were at a graduate-school level.

The notices were loaded with jargon, including such eye-stopping phrases such as ''nonpublic personal public information.''

Mark Hochhauser, who did the study for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said many banks and other companies relied on sample language provided by the government.

Twelve House Democrats have written to federal regulators seeking rules to clarify the notices, which banks and other financial companies will have to issue every year from now on.

Federal Reserve spokeswoman Susan Stawick acknowledged some of the notices have been highly technical. She said the government is advising banks on how to make them understandable.

Consumer advocates say ponderous wording is only part of the problem: Even if people opt out, they can't block information-sharing among affiliated companies, such as banks, brokerages and insurers that join under the same corporate roof. And there are still some cases in which information can be shared with unaffiliated companies.

Jane Hoffman, who writes children's science books from her home in Irvine, Calif., didn't bother to plow through more than a dozen privacy notices she received in the mail, saying ''it really stops hardly anything.''

''I already am bombarded with marketing phone calls,'' she said. ''You're never going to have a peaceful moment again.''

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