Living with credit

Data broker lifts veil on personal, financial data

Kelly Dilworth

Curious about how much of your personal and financial information marketers are collecting behind your back? You’re in luck.

One of the world’s largest data brokers, Arkansas-based Acxiom Corp., has lifted the veil covering its vast trove of consumer data and, for the first time, is allowing people to see just how much it knows about them.

On Sept. 4, Acxiom launched — a slick, information-heavy website that’s full of advice on how you can “make the data work for you.”

Data broker Acxiom lifts veil on personal and financial data

To gain access, though, you have to cough up some sensitive personal details first, including birth date, address and last four digits of your Social Security number. In exchange, it promises to let you in on the personal and financial information that it’s collected without your knowledge.

That way, Acxiom claims, you can edit the information that the company sells to advertisers and “get the best advertising delivered to you, based on your actual interests.” (The edit-your-data setup is a clever way for Acxiom to get users to update their information and make that information more profitable. Whether or not it’s a good deal for users, however, is questionable — particularly since, by updating your information, you’re essentially giving Acxiom permission to profit from your most sensitive personal details.)

A surprising amount of data
Intrigued by Axciom’s promise, I tried out the data broker’s new website and learned that it hasn’t paid much attention to my personal and financial life. It knew my gender and pegged my ethnicity as “American.”

It also knew that I’m a voter, but couldn’t nail down my political party since I haven’t voted in a primary election. In addition, Acxiom accurately confirmed that I’m a high school graduate; but as far as the data broker is concerned, high school is as far as I got. (I guess my time at Sarah Lawrence didn’t count.) The rest of the site’s categories — including economic and shopping data — drew blanks.

Determined to find out more about Acxiom’s behind-the-scenes data collection, I asked my husband for permission to use his personal information and see what it had collected about him.

As soon as I logged in under his name, I was taken aback by how much detail the site captured. (Apparently, my husband — a semi-frequent online shopper — has unknowingly left a much longer data trail for advertisers to follow.)

Acxiom knew what kind of car my husband used to drive and when his insurance was due. It knew that he frequently uses his Visa card, but couldn’t identify precisely what kind of credit card he used.

It accurately estimated his income (not including mine) and confirmed that he indeed has life insurance.

The data broker even tried to identify how many purchases my husband made, how much he spent on average for each purchase — both online and in person — and what payment method he used. (For the record, those numbers were way off.)

It knew that he’s an avid music collector, a previous cat owner and a frequent concertgoer. It also knew what kind of Internet connection he currently uses and accurately identified what kinds of products he’s previously purchased. (For example, according to Acxiom, my husband has purchased linens, wireless products and kitchen/dining accessories, among other product categories.)

Even more disconcertingly, Axciom knew where outside of the U.S. my husband has traveled on vacation.

My husband insists that much of the information that Acxiom has collected about him is outdated by at least five years. But, even then, the level of detail that it has amassed — even if it’s old — was surprising.

Apparently, it’s not the only information Acxiom has on file either.

There’s a lot more behind the curtain
According to the New York Times, the personal and financial details that Acxiom has chosen to make public on are just a small fraction of the actual data that Acxiom collects and sells to corporate marketers.

Acxiom also peddles much more detailed — and controversial — information, says the New York Times’ Natasha Singer, such as whether you’ve got a diabetic in the household, whether you’re likely to inherit a windfall from your moneyed relatives and whether you’re caring for an aging parent. However, that information is currently reserved for Acxiom’s high-paying corporate clients, says Singer.

On its website, Acxiom promises to add more information in the future about the data it currently holds. However, it’s unclear just how many of their secrets they’ll actually let slip — particularly since those details could ignite a lot more controversy than the information that Acxiom is currently willing to uncover.

How to opt out
The good news is that if you’re creeped out by the data that Acxiom collects and are unwilling to have your personal details sold like a bag of goods, you can opt out of Acxiom’s marketing program.

To opt out of all of Acxcom’s marketing products, enter your information on this form and be prepared to jump through some hoops. (When I did it, the process was complicated enough that it took me a few minutes to fully opt out. Not only do you have to fill out Acxiom’s primary opt-out form, you also need to install an opt-out cookie using a separate form.)

According to Acxiom, the data may take a while to fully update and only applies to Acxiom partners.

To opt out of having your data collected by other companies, you can also fill out a form provided by the Direct Marketers Association or write directly to companies that are bombarding you with unsolicited ads.

To opt out of preapproved credit offers, you can also call 888-5-OPTOUT for more information on how to get your name off marketers’ rolls.

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  • Wow, Kelly, pretty scary stuff. I do not know whether to use it or opt out of it. One question: If you opt out and they scrub your record could this hurt you on things like insurance when such companies no longer have information?