A word of online caution: From fraud to data brokers

Bethany J. Royer

March 13, 2014

Bethany J. Royer

Staff Writer


PIQUA — Fraud, scams, and identity theft online is a growing problem in the United States while data brokers “a multi-billion dollar industry” according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has operated generally under the radar.

In fact, data broker companies generated $156 billion in revenue for 2012, two times the entire budget of the United States Intelligence budget, says Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-WV). Collecting data on millions of consumers without permission, input and in many cases no way to opt-out and then selling the information to marketers. Information that can then be used to determine credit risk or establish a consumer profile across a host of businesses, among other potentials.

Whether an individual uses their computer, smart phone or tablet to make a purchase or search for that next great vacation spot online - someone is collecting that information.

However, much of the limelight when it comes to online transactions has been reserved to the aforementioned fraud, scams and identity theft. For example, AARP (Association of American Retired Persons) recently announced 15 key behaviors in combination with life experiences that increase a person’s vulnerability to online fraud. Those behaviors include whether a potential online fraud victim clicks pop-ups ads, opens email from unknown sources, downloads apps, and is impulsive, among other factors. While also taking into account life experiences such as the loss of a job, feeling isolated, and being concerned about debt.

Other factors include whether or not an individual is knowledgeable in regards to banks not sending emails to their customers or being aware that a privacy policy does not always mean the website will not share their information with other companies.

The study found that nearly one in five or 18 percent of Ohioans who access the Internet engage in at least 7 of the 15 behaviors or experience life events that put them at an increased risk for being victimized online. Full results are available online at the AARP website and was conducted on behalf of the association to examine individual Internet use and experience with related fraud.

AARP is now offering a free scam alert that can be delivered directly to one’s email inbox. However, according to the association’s online privacy policy, they allow third-party analytics companies, research companies or ad networks (IE. data brokers) to collect non-personal identifiable information (Non-PII) on their website. Those companies include Acxiom, BridgeTrack, DoubleClick, Google AdSense, Google AdWords, among others.

Acxiom, one the largest companies in the data broker industry, collects information on ad views, browser information, demographic data and hardware/software type to advertisers or other parties.

The company boasts information on an approximate 170 million consumers world-wide, according to Rockefeller who spoke at a Senate hearing in December on the issue of data collection. Pointing to Acxiom as one of several data broker holdouts in terms of providing information and transparency during an investigation into data collecting for the Review of the Data Broker Industry: Collection, Use, and Sale of Consumer Data for Marketing Purposes report.

The AARP website does provide a transparent, relatively easy manner to designate consent status for data collection with an on-off switch for some of those third-party companies on their privacy policy page. For those without a provided on-off switch, a direct link to the third-party website is offered so long as an enduser visits the privacy policy link (Typically at the bottom of the homepage) for the opt-out option.

Yet, several data brokers on the list do not offer an opt-out from their ad serving, ad targeting, and analytics/measurement, such as Brightcove.

When asked how AARP will utilize email provided by endusers for the free scam alert, Kathy Keller of AARP Ohio in Columbus, assures those who sign up for the alert will not have their information handed out to other parties, with the online alert for scam and fraud information only.

Consumer privacy is very important to us, explained Keller, with the AARP website also offering a link to Ghostery, a free, downloadable browser tool that alerts users to data collecting trackers and provides an ability to block them if the user so chooses.

According to Keller, one million Ohioans are at risk of being taken advantage of by scammers with 34 million at high-risk nation-wide.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (iC3) partnered with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most recent 2012 report on Internet crime ranks Ohio as 9th nation-wide for Internet crime complaints and 13th for financial losses related to those crimes.

The United States ranks no. 1 out of the top 50 countries in complaints related to cyber crime which includes auction and credit card fraud, employment or business opportunities, identity theft, SPAM, phishing and romance scams.

Yet, what of the data broker industry with little to no oversight? Their information collection including addresses, political affiliation and health, with an ability to identify smokers, reading and browsing habits, how much one weighs and more. Categorizing and segmenting individuals according to incomes and into such groups titled “Rough retirements” or “Zero mobility” so as to target marketing, accordingly.

It may boil down to a bill introduced last month to the U.S. Senate that would require data brokers to establish procedures to ensure the accuracy of collected personal information. The bill, Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act, would give consumers the opportunity to request their information from data brokers for review, at least once a year so as to correct discrepancies, at no charge, while also providing an opt-out.

Stay tuned …

Bethany J. Royer may be reached at 773-2721 or on Twitter @TheDailyCall