- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

The voice sounded so pleasant. She pronounced my name correctly. Maybe she was a baby sitter who could work on short notice. So I politely owned up to the fact that I was myself.
Bad move. The caller, a student, wanted me to give money to the university where I earned a master's degree. My long-standing method of screening unwanted phone calls had failed. I usually assume callers who can't pronounce my name have no business phoning me. The system seldom errs, and it is a useful way to wrest control of annoying calls from telemarketers.
The name test gives me the chance to deliver sternly my all-purpose response to telemarketers: "I don't accept solicitation calls. Please put my name and phone number on your 'do not call' list."
Anti-telemarketing experts say this method should reduce the volume of unwanted calls, but it hasn't worked for me. Part of the reason is the growing number of companies that resort to telemarketing because it is an inexpensive and efficient way to make sales. Another reason is the Internet, where it is easy to compile personal information on consumers and use it for commercial purposes without consent.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a District-based group that tracks privacy issues, is publicizing a new feature that enables consumers to curb the amount of information that gets into the hands of third parties on the Internet.
Consumers who do not want companies to have access to their personal information can complete an "opt-out" form at the group's Web site, http://opt-out.cdt.org. The opt-out forms are sent to companies that do on-line profiling, which traces the footprints of Internet users through the Web sites they visit.
The profiles are compiled through the use of "cookies," which are text files that allow sites and advertisers to "remember" users across multiple visits on the Web. The cookies enable on-line profilers to find out a user's name, address, phone number and e-mail address. The profilers can then make assumptions about a person's wants and needs based on the sites the user frequents.
Advertising companies use the profiles to target advertising to specific users. For example, frequent visitors to travel-oriented Web sites would get e-mails about discount airline and hotel offers. Though this may appear innocuous, the problem is that most people are unaware of how much of their private data is easily collected by advertisers.
Privacy concerns about on-line profiling reached a boiling point early this year when DoubleClick, the nation's largest on-line advertiser, announced plans to cross-reference its on-line profiles with a separate database of consumer information.
DoubleClick last year purchased Abacus Direct, a direct-marketing company, for $1.7 billion. The goal was to compile a nationwide database merging both on-line and off-line consumer profiles.
The strategy fizzled. Privacy advocates complained to the Federal Trade Commission, which started an investigation into DoubleClick's information-gathering techniques. DoubleClick announced early in March that it was backing off of its database plans.
The company maintains its database would not violate privacy; rather, it would enable advertisers to alert consumers to deals that presumably would match their interests. At DoubleClick's Web site, www.doubleclick.net, consumers can opt out of the data gathering the company conducts. "We believe that relevant content makes advertising on the Web less intrusive by ensuring that users are not bombarded with repeat and irrelevant ad messages," says a posting on the opt-out form.
Consumers who want to keep their information private also can visit a site operated by advertising networks, www.networkadvertising.org, that enables users to block personal information from being released.
Both on-line and off-line advertisers are trying to stave off government intervention in the business of information gathering. A group of 26 companies has created an international industry advocacy group called the Personalization Consortium. The companies say they want to police themselves to make sure consumer information is handled properly.
Consumers who do not want to wait for the industry's efforts to protect their privacy, or doubt the sincerity of the effort, should put a clamp on how much information they provide to salespeople. Privacy experts say consumers should carefully guard their Social Security number and be wary of filling out "product registration" cards and signing up for memberships at Web sites.
When in doubt, lie. The Electronic Privacy Information Center suggests that consumers provide bogus data in cases where a business insists on asking for information it is not legally entitled to demand.
Have a question on work or family finances? Get in touch with Anne Veigle at 202/636-3014 or e-mail (evie1@infi.net).


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