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Protecting Your Privacy

By using computer technology, companies can legally collect information about consumers, including what they buy, what medications they take, what sites on the INTERNET they have visited, and what their credit history is. Computer software can organize this data and prepare it for sale and use by direct marketing companies, lending institutions, insurance companies, and credit bureaus.

Although it may be legal to collect this information, individuals may legitimately take steps to protect their privacy. Here are some common ways that companies collect information and some steps consumers can take to prevent this from happening:

  • Shopper's cards. Some grocery stores and other retail businesses offer discounts or premiums when consumers use their shopper's cards. All purchases are scanned into a computer, allowing the store to compile a list of each individual's buying habits. The store may use this information to target certain customers or may sell it to companies seeking specific types of potential customers. Consumers can protect their privacy either by not using such cards or by persuading the company to limit the distribution of the information.
  • Financial data. Credit bureaus compile credit histories filled with personal information, which are sold to anyone without restriction. Although these credit reports are supposed to be sold only to those companies with a legitimate business interest, this is not always the case. Consumers are entitled to review their credit reports and correct any errors. If someone the consumer does not know has requested a report, the consumer can ask the credit bureau to investigate the legitimacy of the request.
  • Motor vehicle data. An individual's motor vehicle registration is public information in most states. In many states, driver's license data (weight, age, address, driver's license number) are also public information. Automobile dealers and insurance companies collect such information. An individual can request the state motor vehicle department not to release his or her name and address to individuals or companies.

The FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION has issued regulations restricting companies from certain forms of telephone solicitation, which has developed into a common annoyance in U.S. households. Under these regulations (47 C.F.R. § 64.1200), a company may not initiate a telephone call by using an automatic dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice without prior consent of the party called. Likewise, a company may not make such a call to a service for which the called party may be charged, such as a paging service or a cellular telephone service. A company is also restricted from sending an unsolicited advertisement to a telephone facsimile machine without prior permission.

A telemarketer is restricted from calling a residential telephone subscriber before 8 A.M. or after 9 P.M. local time of the party being called. Telemarketers must institute procedures for maintaining a do-not-call list in order to conduct telemarketing. If an individual requests that the telemarketer place him or her on the do-not-call list, the telemarketer must comply. The telemarketer must satisfy a number of minimum requirements, including the development of a written policy detailing the procedures that must be followed if a person asks to be placed on the do-not-call list; training of personnel to place persons on the do-not-call list; and ensuring that the person who requests to have his or her name on the list is placed on the list. If a telemarketer fails to honor the do-not-call list, it is liable to a party on the list that is contacted by a telephone solicitor employed by that telemarketer.


Bruening, Paula J. 2001. Consumer Privacy in the Electronic Marketplace. Washington, D.C.: National Legal Center for the Public Interest.

"Code of Federal Regulations Title 47: Restrictions on Telephone Solicitation." Available online at <www.ornocall.com/ced73687.html> (accessed July 15, 2003).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Prerogative orders to ProhibitionPrivacy - Constitutional Law, Protecting Your Privacy, Common Law, Legislation, Do Dna Databases Violate Privacy?