The Dangers of Giving Your Zip Code to Stores When Shopping

credit cardI’ve done it myself a zillion times: after you swipe your credit card and the cashier bags your new jeans, she asks you for your ZIP code, and you ... tell her! Kind of annoying, but no big deal, right? Well, turns out it actually can be a big deal, and it’s definitely not a good idea.

I realize that I’ve never really thought about WHY stores want that information; I’m more just focused on wanting to get done and OUT (I love new clothes but I hate shopping!). I guess if I gave it any thought, I figured they were interested in knowing where people came from to shop in certain locations. Well, demographics do play a part in why they collect that info, but there’s a lot more to it than that.


Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit watchdog group based in San Diego, California, says that not only do stores use your ZIP code so they can -- duh! -- market to you, but sometimes to they can sell your information to other companies! Basically, if someone has your full name AND your ZIP code, it’s easy to get your home contact information. Combine that with information about what you purchased and where you like to shop, and now they’ve got a “data profile” on you, which means more catalogues and junk mail and even more telemarketer phone calls.

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It’s annoying enough to get unsolicited marketing materials from stores where you like to shop; it’s even worse to know that by giving your ZIP code to one store, you could be unwittingly giving them information to sell your data to other stores! And in two states now, it’s more than just an annoying request, it’s actually illegal: California passed law after a woman complained that Williams-Sonoma used her ZIP to find her home address, and just last week Massachusetts enacted similar legislation.

Ug, sometimes it seems like keeping your information private is a losing battle, especially given how much of our shopping and browsing is done online. But it’s a battle that’s worth fighting -- if only to save us from having to recycle even more junk mail!

Do you usually give out your ZIP code when asked at stores?

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