Big Brother is watching

Companies, big brother is not just government, compile tons of personal information on you. Here’s what they have, how they use it, and why you should know.

Your personal information—everything from your shopping habits to your health history—can be available to creditors, employers, landlords, insurers, law enforcement agencies, and, of course, criminals. All they need to do is tap into the public and private databases that gather, buy, and sell your vital statistics.

Demand for your personal information has exploded in recent years. Its availability has also raised privacy concerns. When users buy and compile various pieces of information about you, “they can paint a very complete picture of your activities,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Whether the data are accurate or not, misinterpretations can lead to higher costs for credit and insurance, or the denial of a job. They can also prevent you from renting an apartment or opening a checking account, and even from returning unwanted merchandise to stores. Here’s what Big Brother has on you.

1. Your credit history

Credit reports are compiled by the big three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Each has some 200 million files, which help form the credit scores used to measure your creditworthiness.

What’s here?

Almost everything about your use of credit, including amounts borrowed, credit lines, opened and closed accounts, application inquiries, and how well you’ve honored your obligations on mortgages, credit cards, car loans, and other types of credit. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, liens, and collections are also here. Public record information like court judgments might also appear. Other basics include your Social Security number, date of birth, and past addresses.

How is the information used?

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows companies to buy your credit information if they are considering transactions with you related to credit, employment, insurance, investing, government licensing, or other “legitimate business need.” The purpose, in general, is to assess your past financial responsibility, but insurance companies have stretched that to include predicting the likelihood that you will file an insurance claim, based on confidential credit-based scoring models.

Your rights

Under the FCRA, you’re entitled to a free credit report from the big three credit bureaus annually and to dispute errors. To maintain oversight of your credit reports, get one from each credit bureau every four months, rotating from one bureau to the next. Go to annual credit report, the authorized site for obtaining your "free credit reports", or call 877-322-8228.

Federal regulations limit the time that negative information can stay on your report (seven to 10 years) and let you opt out of receiving preapproved credit offers. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring credit bureaus to allow consumers to put a security freeze on their credit files, which blocks access to prospective creditors and others with whom you don’t already do business.

2. Your insurance claims

Reports offered by ChoicePoint, a data broker in Georgia, are based on claims information reported by insurers to the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. A-PLUS reports, sold by the Insurance Services Office in Jersey City, N.J., are based on information reported by over 1,400 insurers to the Automobile- Property Loss Underwriting Service.

What’s here?

Both companies’ reports reveal information about you and your automobile and homeowners insurance loss claims filed with reporting carriers over the past three to seven years.

How is the information used?

Insurance companies use your claims history to assess how much of a risk you are, which can affect premiums or coverage eligibility. They can also use the claims history of a given property to determine how much of a risk that home presents. ChoicePoint promotes its CLUE reports to home buyers and sellers, warning that a home’s past can “come back to haunt you in the form of higher premiums for your homeowners insurance.”

Your rights

Since ChoicePoint and ISO are “consumer reporting agencies,” as defined by FCRA, you’re entitled to one free report a year. In some reports, negative information will remain for up to seven years. Go to for information on how to obtain a CLUE report. If you’re considering buying a home, ask the seller to obtain the property’s loss-history report for you. To order your A-PLUS report, call 800-627-3487.

3. Your health history

The MIB consumer file database is maintained by the MIB Group, a consortium of 470 U.S. and Canadian companies that sell life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term-care insurance. Two other companies, Milliman and Ingenix, compile your prescription drug history from databases maintained by pharmacy chains and prescription benefit managers, and sell IntelliScript and MedPoint reports to insurers.

What’s here?

Information significant to your health or longevity is reported to the MIB database in coded form. It includes medical conditions that you reported on insurance applications for individual (not group) coverage, and test results from medical underwriting exams. Potentially hazardous hobbies and driving records may also be there. Your actual medical records are not reported. The IntelliScript and Med Point reports contain information about the prescription drugs you’ve used over the last five years, including dosages, refills, and doctors.

How is the information used?

When you apply for individual life, health, and similar coverage, you may sign a waiver that lets a prospective insurer check your MIB report and IntelliScript or MedPoint reports to see if you’ve omitted significant information. Insurers use the information to determine your risk class, set premiums, and decide whether or not to insure you.

Your rights

The reports fall under the FCRA protections. To get a free copy of your reports, call MIB at 866-692-6901; IntelliScript at 877-211-4816; and MedPoint at 888-206-0335.

4. Your checking accounts

Chex Systems provides information on mishandled checking and saving accounts, a service used by about 80 percent of U.S. banks. TeleCheck assesses the risk of accepting paper checks at 350,000 retailers, financial institutions, grocery stores, and other outlets.

What’s here?

Chex Systems and TeleCheck collect information on mishandled checking accounts, such as overdrawn accounts closed by you or your bank. The reports can include your driver’s license number, unpaid amounts, and who was stiffed. The reporting company is not required to remove information unless it’s incorrect, but it does have to report any payback. Negative information can stay on your report for five years at Chex Systems and seven years at TeleCheck.

How is the information used?

Banks can check mishandling data to decide whether to open a new account for you. Retailers can use TeleCheck to assess the risk of accepting your checks.

Your rights

Both are subject to FCRA requirements. To get a free copy of your Chex Systems report, go to and click on “Order Consumer Report.” To obtain your free TeleCheck report, go to and click on “TeleCheck Consumer Assistance.”

5. Your background

ChoicePoint is one of the more prominent background-check companies. LexisNexis, which owns ChoicePoint, also provides Person Reports.

What’s here?

ChoicePoint’s reports include a smorgasbord of dirt: auto and homeowner CLUE reports; pre-employment background checks; an “Esteem” report if you ever admitted to or were convicted of shoplifting; results of a national criminal records search; evictions; and public-records search results. Person Reports include nonpublic and publicly available information.

How is the information used?

Employers, landlords, insurers, governments, and volunteer organizations use background checks to measure the reputation and character of applicants.

Your rights

Also subject to FCRA requirements. To get a free copy of your file, go to and, under Reports About You, click on “Access to Your Personal Information.” For information on LexisNexis Person reports, go to

6. Your purchase returns

The Retail Equation maintains information on merchandise returns made to an undisclosed number of national retailers. Before customers are allowed to return goods, participating stores ask to run their driver’s licenses through a reader to check their return history.

What’s here?

It can include a record of your past returns at participating stores, the purchase prices, and whether or not you had receipts.

How is the information used?

Retailers are on the lookout for certain fraudulent and abusive practices, which include returning shoplifted merchandise, “renting” (buying, say, a video camera to use temporarily for a wedding before returning it), and “wardrobing” (buying a dress, then returning it after wearing it). If your pattern of returns at a particular store raises red flags, you might not be able to get your money back the next time you try.

Your rights

The FCRA does not cover this. But Retail Equation will send you a copy of your return activity report on request. Go to for more information.

7. Your rental history

First Advantage SafeRent maintains a landlord-tenant database of 34 million records and a subprime payment history database of 40 million records to screen prospective renters. A smaller company, RentBureau, includes nearly 6 million records nationwide.

What’s here?

Rent-payment history, references, credit ratings, criminal records, and scores designed to predict an applicant’s risk of defaulting on a lease.

How is the information used?

Landlords who operate multifamily apartment complexes use the information to screen tenants and reduce losses that result when tenants skip out without paying, write bad checks, require an eviction, or cause significant property damage.

Your rights

They are the same as with the other consumer reporting agencies covered by FCRA. For information on First Advantage SafeRent, go to or call 800-815-8664. For more on RentBureau, go to and click on “For Consumers.”

8. Mailing lists

This is the Wild West of databases. Two major players are USADATA, which has delivered more than a billion names to over 100,000 companies, and InfoUSA, whose databases contain 210 million consumers.

What’s here?

The primary information sold is your name and address. But the real value for buyers comes from prescreening the names by certain characteristics—for example, people known to be affluent, homeowners, mail-order buyers, investors, people who have specific diseases or are disabled, new parents, older people, donors/contributors, and so on try this out. Some companies develop lists of people who have fallen for get-rich-quick scams or investment frauds.

How is the information used?

The lists allow salespeople to focus on consumers who are more likely to buy their products.

Your rights

You can opt out of receiving junk mail. See the box below for advice on how to do that.

How to protect yourself

Don’t ignore privacy-rights notices from banks, brokers, and other financial companies. Use them to exercise your right under federal law to prevent those companies from “sharing” (translation: “selling”) some of your information with others. Do the same when asked by retailers and Web sites.

Don’t fill out surveys on warranty cards beyond your name, address, and the necessary product information.

Stop unsolicited preapproved credit card offers at, or call 888-567-8688.

Put your name on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call registry by going to or calling 888-382-1222.

When you move, stay out of the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address database. Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, advises that you file a temporary change, good for six months, which won’t be entered into the database. During that time, tell everyone who needs to know your new address.

To get your name off mailing lists, go to the Direct Marketing Association’s consumer Web site, at Click on “Register for eMPS” to opt out of unsolicited junk e-mail.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lists data brokers that offer opt-out policies at

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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