As a public service to our wonderful readers, BrightReviews is launching a brand new series of articles designed to help you avoid some of the most common “sins” television marketers commit. Read, learn, and share these tips so you and your loved ones don’t get burned. The Sins so far in the series: Sin #1: Sneaky Pricing, Sin #2: The Upsell, Sin #3: Lousy Customer Service and now Sin #4 – the so-called Privacy Policy that has none!

The Evil Privacy Policy runs rampant these days with fine print that would make even Edward Snowden gasp. Websites that have an EPP will take your name, your phone number, your email and snail-mail address and basically do whatever they want with it. This can include:

  • Constantly calling you on the telephone to sell you stuff.
  • Sending you spam emails.
  • Lots of junk mail sent to your home, office, or PO Box.

They may also:

  • Put “cookies” on your computer to track your behavior on their website as well as your search engine requests or what you do on other sites.
  • Create a profile of you and your buying/surfing habits.
  • Analyze this data for marketing purposes.
  • Sell this information to third parties who may do all the above and more.
  • Solicit you in ways that have yet to be invented.

You’re probably thinking “HOW CAN THEY GET AWAY WITH THIS??”

Answer: Because this is America!!

Unlike Europe, Canada, and even India, the United States does not have specific regulation regarding what corporations can do with your personal data. Aside from children under 13 covered by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and laws protecting privacy for health insurance or financial websites, the U.S. Government asks companies to regulate themselves. Yeah, that’s working. Not.

Invasion of the Privacy Breachers

Here at BrightReviews (and our sister publication Highya) we receive complaints all the time about being bombarded with phone calls from 800 numbers after ordering products online that people see on TV. Jackie Klee from Colorado complains about her experience with Dutch Glow:

“Here's the crazy thing. Before I received the product in the mail, Dutch Glow sales people were calling our home trying to sell us more of their products.”

Tara from Chicago, IL complains about My Spy Birdhouse:

“They sold my name/ number. Ever since I placed an order for a My Spy Bird house, I have been bombarded with solicitation calls.”

Karen from Bakersfield, CA relates her experience when she ordered Micro Touch One Razor:

“I was called this morning to let me know my order was on its way. But so was my free gas vouchers and some type of savings club? I would be billed a low, low $29.99 a month! So beware if you ordered online or the phone you may have just joined a scam!”

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Privacy Protection?

It ain’t easy to protect yourself. Of course, you could read the Privacy Policy page of each and every website before you buy or even fill out any form. But this may prove daunting: according to one study the average Privacy Policy takes 10 minutes to read.  

And it’s not just the “As Seen On TV” guys. The privacy policies of 15 top internet companies including Amazon, eBay, and Yahoo were analyzed by Common Data Project, and the results weren’t pretty. Most of them used vague wording about what they can do with your data, and when it comes to third-party access to your information, all bets are off.  A similar conclusion was made by the Atlantic magazine who analyzed the Top 50 Websites Privacy Policies and found them to be a total of 145,641 words and leaving themselves plenty of legal wiggle room to do what they please with your/their data.

Privacy Wars: A New Hope

But there is hope. A Carnegie-Melon study showed that consumers are indeed concerned about privacy and are willing to pay for it. The Effect of Online Privacy Information on Purchasing Behavior: An Experimental Study by Janice Y. Tsai, Serge Egelman, Lorrie Cranor, and Alessandro Acquisti set up an experiment where test subjects were asked to shop for online batteries; their browser had a special plug-in which rated the privacy policies of websites from “high privacy” to “low privacy.” In one segment of the test, the participants made 47.4% more purchases from sites when they were rated high as opposed to those labeled as having no privacy.

Unfortunately, there is little movement towards greater privacy protection from the retailers themselves as there is still a lot of money to be made from your data.

But there are a few things you CAN do yourself to deflect the EPP

  • Avoid giving your phone number if at all possible when ordering online. If you cannot, and you do start to receive solicitations, visit the offending party’s website and click on their Privacy Policy page. Many have instructions or an email address that will let you opt-out of these solicitations.
  • Register your phone with the Do Not Call Registry. If you still keep getting calls, many phones (including the iPhone) now allow you to block certain phone numbers.
  • Install software like Disconnect and PrivacyFix that block third party tracking of your data.
  • Follow the work of Common Data Project, which seeks a responsible standard for collecting and using consumer data. They also are looking for corporations to work with them.
  • Call your congressperson and tell them to enact H.R.89 aka the Online Privacy Protection Act of 2001 or tell them to get off of their butt and work to pass similar legislation. (Good luck!)

Evil Privacy Policies are everywhere, but if you are aware of them and take certain measures, you can protect yourself and your data… sort of.

Next time, we’ll tackle Sin #5… The Sneaky Monthly Subscription!