registration: A gold mine for marketers
box and wrestle that new DVD player out of the Styrofoam and the plastic bag.
More than likely, a product registration or warranty card will come tumbling out,
If you're like many consumers,
you'll then fill the card out and mail it in to ensure your warranty in case the
machine breaks. Sounds innocent enough, but it could be a bad move if you want
to protect your personal information, and possibly your safety.
and warranty cards don't do very much for the consumer, but they are a gold mine
for marketing companies. Notice that many cards go way beyond asking for your
name, address and the serial number of the product. Questions such as your age,
marital status, salary, education, do you own or rent and what kind of car you
drive are common.
Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel with the Electronic
Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., says product warranty cards that
collect personal information are deceptive.
cards are information collected under the pretense of a benefit where the information
goes straight to marketers. The purpose of a product warranty card is not to protect
you, it's to collect marketing information."
Some consumer experts
differentiate between registration cards and warranty cards. Registration cards,
at least in a perfect world, ask for just enough information so the company can
notify you if the product is recalled. Warranty cards have developed more of a
reputation for asking a laundry list of questions about your personal habits.
But that difference is getting blurred as many registration cards are data mining,
Do you have to return the cards to activate your warranty?
"If the product comes with a full warranty,
the manufacturer cannot require you to return the registration card," says
Jean Fox of Consumer Federation of America.
But if it's a limited
warranty, as is the case most often, says Fox, then the manufacturer may require
you to return the card.
"As long as it's stated as a condition
in the warranty. If they require you to prove the date of purchase, they have
to state that in the warranty. But you don't have to tell them how many children
Fox is citing consumer law, but some privacy
advocates are staunchly against returning the cards under any circumstances.
can call them product warranty cards or product registration cards or green leafy
vegetable cards. The people who don't send them back are in the know. The ones
who do send them back are the biggest and best targets for marketing. They're
the ones who have their personal information sold without their knowledge or permission,"
says Bob Blumash, creator of Illinois-based Private Citizen.
address, serial number only
All privacy experts we talked with
say that if you feel obligated to return the card, only include your name, address,
the product serial number and a copy of the receipt if you need to verify the
date of purchase.
If you don't return the card, keep it with
What's the big deal about revealing how many kids
you have or what car you drive? Marketing companies can build a large database
on you as an individual and, at best, you'll be deluged with telemarketing calls
and junk mail.
"You'd be surprised at how much information
they can put together from a consumer survey," says Washington, D.C.-based
attorney Michael Lenett.
"It's very detailed and can be
cross-referenced in many ways. Direct marketing companies can glean an awful lot
of information about you based on your responses to simple questions."
Lenett has seen the ugly, chilling side of consumer
surveys. He represented Beverly Dennis, an Ohio woman who filled out a survey
card that promised coupons and product samples in return for answers to innocuous
questions about what bath soap and shampoo she used.
got more than coupons and tiny bottles of shampoo. She soon received a lengthy,
sexually explicit letter from a man who knew too much about her. He knew her birthday,
her salary, the soap she used, the magazines she read and, obviously, where she
It took more than a year, but through dogged determination,
Dennis eventually found out how the man knew so much about her. Metromail Corporation,
the company that ran the survey, delivered thousands of the cards to a Texas prison
where inmates sifted through and processed the data.
who wrote to Dennis was a convicted rapist and burglar.
sued Metromail in what turned out to be a class action lawsuit. During litigation,
her attorney found that Metromail had compiled a 25-page file of personal information
Lenett, her attorney, says the Metromail case was
a matter of deception and disclosure.
"She gave her personal
information willingly, but for what? To get coupons and product samples. She never
consented to have her information be put into a database where consumer portfolios
would be assembled and sold to any willing buyer. And she didn't consent to allow
her information to be seen by felons."
Dennis won her
case and a $15 million settlement fund was created. Metromail also had to agree
to stop using inmates to process information.
But that doesn't
stop other companies from using inmates to process sensitive data.
phone chain gang
"The old image
of prisoners making license plates has changed to prisoners doing computer data
entry and telemarketing. Prisons have turned from a manufacturing center to a
data processing center," says Blumash.
The Utah Department
of Corrections points out on its Web site that, "Every day, the Utah Correctional
Industries Data Entry Operation trains inmates to transcribe handwritten or typed
information from state forms into a format that can be read by a computer program.
The bulk of the work done is on Medicare claims for the Department of Health."
information is probably a bit more sensitive than your favorite soap.
National Correctional Industries Association, which puts inmates to work for various
job assignments, didn't return calls for comment.
many inmates who qualify for job training are hoping to get their lives back on
track, but employing convicted felons to process personal information is a questionable
practice at best. In 2000, Kentucky, for example, stopped accepting such work
for its inmates because of privacy concerns.
Perhaps the trickiest
aspect about not returning warranty or registration cards is how will you be notified
if there's a recall?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission,
which regulates 15,000 products and issues about 300 recalls a year, is aware
of the warranty-card controversy and is exploring ways to improve the recall process.
consumer advocacy groups would like to see registration cards where the privacy
of the individual is protected and it doesn't become a marketing tool; it's a
consumer safety tool," says Bruce Richardson, director of public affairs
for the CPSC.
"There's a general belief that if people
knew the registration card would be used strictly for a safety recall it would
have more impact than a warranty card. Registration cards need to be something
separate, exclusive of any other materials that the manufacturer may be asking
of the consumer."
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., has re-introduced
legislation that would require companies to provide postage-paid product registration
cards that only ask for a consumer's name, address and phone number.
Direct Marketing Association declined an opportunity to comment for this report.