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Opting out to protect your privacy

Stop! Quit throwing out "junk" mail from your bank, credit union or other financial institutions without carefully inspecting it. You could be tossing out your chance for privacy.

Everyone in America who has an account with a bank, credit union, savings and loan or a mortgage company, or has an insurance policy or an investment account, can expect to get a fistful of notices once a year that will let them limit the amount of personal information those companies can share or sell.

Selling your personal information is big business for American companies. That includes your bank. You have an opportunity to stop it -- in a watered down sort of way.

It's part of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act of 1999. This law gives consumers a bit of say-so in how their personal information is shared among companies.

Who can have your information

The federal privacy law divides business relationships into three sections:
  1. Affiliated companies.
  2. Joint marketing.
  3. Unaffiliated third parties.

Financial institutions have the right to share your personal information with affiliates and companies with which they have joint marketing agreements, but the law gives you the right to tell them not to share information with non-affiliated third-party companies and individuals.

If a bank owns an insurance company, or has a joint marketing agreement with an insurance company, it can give that company information about you and there's nothing you can do to stop them.

But, you can tell the bank not to release your information to a totally unaffiliated car dealership that contacts your bank looking for folks with fat bank accounts.

There are exceptions to the non-affiliated third-party rule. Your information can be shared with a third party if it's needed to conduct normal business. For instance, if your bank uses a third party to print account statements or if sharing the information will protect against fraud or if there's reason to believe the information is publicly available in the phone book, in court records, etc.

How to say no

You may also opt out of having information about your creditworthiness shared with your financial institutions' affiliates.
Things to do
  • Tell customers what kinds of information they collect and the types of businesses to which they sell or give that information.
  • If the institution intends to sell or give your information to a company outside its corporate family, it has to give you a way to "opt out" or say, "No, I don't want you to share my information."
  • The institution has to tell you how they protect the confidentiality of your information.

How to find the privacy notice

You might not always recognize the privacy statements. The notices that enable you to opt out may be just another piece of paper stuffed in with your monthly statement or they may arrive in a separate envelope.

There's no particular format the institutions have to follow, but the word "privacy" should be fairly prominent. Read the fine print of all inserts, looking for phrases such as "Privacy Notice," "Privacy Policy" and "Opt-out Notice," says the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Unfortunately, you won't know when to expect a privacy notice. Financial institutions have the option of picking any month to send the annual notice.

Good as long as you want

Fortunately, once an opt-out choice is made on an account, it stays in effect unless you change it. You don't have to opt-out every year for each account. You should always get a privacy notice when you open a new account, whether it's with the same institution or a different one.

If you mistakenly toss a notice, you can ask for another privacy notice from your financial institution and exercise any opt-out choice that is given.

States get tougher

Banks and legislators are keeping an eye on states that are enacting privacy laws that are stricter than the federal standards.

Some states have "opt-in" rules for the sharing of information with non-affiliated third parties or with companies that have a joint marketing arrangement. Opt-in means customers don't have to do anything if they don't want their information shared with those groups. If they do want their information shared, they have to let the company know.

If financial privacy is a concern, be sure to review all the material that's sent to you from banks, brokerages, insurance companies and the like. If you have any questions about a privacy notice, call the institution.

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