Do you know what a data broker is? A recent survey found 80 percent of people have no idea. But data brokers actually know a lot about you. They collect, calculate and sell highly personal information about millions of people.
After financial planner Rod Laurenz opened a new office, he used a credit card to buy baby wipes to clean the place. He says after picking up just one canister, he was shocked to be bombarded with targeted online ads for other baby wipes and more children's products.
"It does lead to some concerns. How much do they know? And how much can then be determined about a person?" Laurenz said.
The Federal Trade Commission also wants to know those answers. The agency just launched an investigation into the data brokerage industry.
"We really wanted to look under the hood of these companies and see exactly who they're buying this information from, how much information they have, what they use it for, and who they share it with," said Maneesha Mithal with the FTC.
The FTC already knows that data includes: what you buy, where you shop and where you drive. It might also include your health problems, who your social network friends are, if you pay your bills on time, or spent time in jail.
"Data brokers are selling information that companies could use to deny people employment or credit or insurance," Mithal said.
Second, according to the agency, is that people consider it "creepy" to be followed online.
And finally, they're worried about identity theft.
This government report reveals hackers have also accessed information companies collected about you.
But Jerry Cerasale with the Direct Marketing Association stresses most data brokers work hard to keep your private info secure, and thinks the largely self-regulated industry should stay that way.
"It's going to get us out of this recession. It's going to get us out of it faster and it's going to keep america in the lead," Cerasale said.
After the FTC analyzes the information it gets the agency will make recommendations about industry practices, and possibly ask congress to regulate it more.
The FTC will also look at ways consumers could have even more privacy and opportunities to "opt out" of being tracked, and correct inaccurate information collected about them.
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