Privacy when using a debit/credit card. It's something very few think about but has, and will continue to have, far reaching concerns that are virtually impossible to correct.
When you use your card, a couple things happen. The business where you made your purchase opens a profile tied directly to you and stores that indefinitely. Along with the business, your bank also gathers a significant portion of information to store indefinitely. Here's a few things that the business and bank know when you make a purchase. Business
- Debit/Credit card information
- The bank your card(s) are with
- Itemized list of your purchases
- Location of store
If you have a store rewards account, which many people do, you can add these to the list
- Physical address
- Email address
- Phone number
- Store you shopped at
- Debit/Credit card you used
- Amount of the transaction
Over time, your profile at these companies build. Full itemized purchase history, exact date and time of every purchase you've ever made down to the second, and every card you've used to buy everything. Your bank doesn't have quite as many details, but they know almost as much. Once you realize all of the information that you give off by inserting or swiping or tapping a piece of plastic, it starts to become slightly concerning.
The thoughts of identity theft typically spring the the forefront and for good reason. 284 data breaches across a dozen different industries, releasing billions (with a B) of personal records and credentials
is astoundingly tragic. Almost 17 million people experienced identity theft in 2017
. You can walk into any local Starbucks, look around, and know that at least one person in the building has personally experienced identity theft. It's shockingly common.
Even though someone can open credit cards in your name or impersonate you when opening a new account, many of these things are fixable given enough blood, sweat, and tears. The real dangers are things that are unfixable once they start. Think about these scenarios for a moment.
- What if United Healthcare purchases data from Walmart and sees you purchase a 24 pack of Coca Cola once a week and have for the last six months. They might deem that to be "too unhealthy" and raise your premiums because you're a higher risk for diabetes. Maybe your dental insurance sees that too and raises premiums because you're more likely to need work done on your teeth.
- What if you apply for a customer facing job at your local retail shop but they see you have weekly transactions at a therapist for the last 5 weeks. Because of that, they think you'll be too unstable or unpredictable and would rather not have you potentially causing problems with customers or management.
- What if you're shopping from a hotel but they have information that says you've made purchases at Apple, Nordstroms, and the new a high end Mongolian restaurant in town. They decide to add $30 to your nightly rate because data shows people who shop at these places are wealthier on average and won't question the slight upcharge for simply having money.
With offline purchases being tied to your online identities, companies can make hundreds or thousands of data point connections and draw statistical conclusions based on what tens or hundreds of millions of people are doing. Google has access to, at least, 70% of credit card purchases and are linking them to you as you read this.
Some might argue that none of these things are happening now and it's all unbridled paranoia and fear mongering. Unfortunately, this isn't remotely new and is increasingly becoming more common across the world. In 2000, Amazon was called out for charging different customers different prices for DVDs.
They stated it was "random" but no one truly knows what criteria they were focusing on. It's fairly uncommon for a retailer to test price changes without a purpose to see what type of people buy what items. In 2012, WSJ did an investigation on Staples
and found that they [Staples] displayed different prices based on your location.
A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations. More than that, Staples appeared to consider the person's distance from a rival brick-and-mortar store, either OfficeMax Inc. or Office Depot Inc. ODP 2.56% If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price. Also in 2012, WSJ also found that Orbitz charged Mac users up to 30% more for their hotels.
Orbitz Worldwide Inc. has found that people who use Apple Inc.'s Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see. In 2014, WashingtonPost did an investigation of their own across multiple ecommerce sites.
Here's some of the interesting tidbits they found.
For example, Travelocity reduced the prices on 5 percent of hotel rooms shown in search results by around $15 per night for smartphone users. Interestingly, Cheaptickets and Orbitz gave unadvertised “Members Only” discounts of about $12 per night on 5 percent of hotels rooms to users who were logged-in to their accounts on the site.
Expedia and Hotels.com conduct what marketers and engineers call A/B tests to steer a subset of their users toward more expensive hotels. [...] In this case, visitors to Expedia and Hotels.com were randomly assigned to groups A, B or C based on the cookies stored on their computers. Users in groups A and B were shown hotels with an average price of $187 a night, while users in group C were shown hotels with an average price of $170/night.
Home Depot served almost completely different products to users on desktops versus mobile devices. A desktop user searching Home Depot typically received 24 search results, with an average price per item of $120. In contrast, mobile users receive 48 search results, with an average price per item of $230. Bizarrely, products are also $0.41 more expensive on average for Android users.
How to combat this
In store, it's fairly simple. Good old fashioned cold hard cash reigns supreme. There's no way to tie your purchase directly to your (assuming you don't give them a rewards account). Their system will still log the transaction, but it won't have your name sitting right beside it, which is the entire point.
For those that don't want to carry "tons of cash" with them, a non reloadable* vanilla prepaid Visa card is great alternative. For a small fee (usually $5 - $7), you can go to the gas station, buy a card, and preload a few hundred bucks on to a card to use in whatever store you please. Transactions can be tracked by the card number but it's still fairly limited compared to a bank card due to no name attached which, again, is the entire point. However, if you just toss your prepaid card in the trash, someone can pick it up and that cards transactions with the information on the back of the card.
*You need a non reloadable card because reloadable ones typically ask for SSN.
Online purchases are just as easy but they require a couple other steps. You can use a service such as Privacy.com
to generate prepaid cards on the fly to use for online purchases. You link your bank or card to them and simply go to the website to generate a card when you make an online purchase. These are great because (for Privacy.com) you can use any name and email address you want. For Blur, you use their specific address. It feels good when you can use Bobbert McBobsen at 123 Main St in Beverly Hills when buying your new rice cooker online.
*These services are generally US only. Unfortunately, there isn't really a similar service in other parts of the world.
Like in store, you can purchase a non reloadable vanilla Visa card at your local shop, load it up, and use it online to similar effect.
A third option, for the retailers that accept it, is cryptocurrency. Most of them are not truly
private but offer substantially more privacy compared to your Chase credit card. Bitcoin is the most commonly accepted but others are starting to show up as well. For most people, prepaid cards are simpler and work in just about every case, unlike crypto.
It's well worth the time and effort to build new habits around using cash or prepaid cards. Not only for today but for your future. Never forget that once your information is out there, there's no taking it back. With that said, don't stress or worry about the past. The overwhelming majority has used debit/credit cards or signed up for rewards accounts but starting today, you no longer have to feed the machine. As your data ages with nothing new coming it, it becomes less valuable, less accurate, and less trustworthy to companies.
The saying "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is right now" applies just as well to privacy. For those interested in keeping up with my privacy posts, I keep them all over at /gimtayida
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