“Free credit report” offers are abundant on the internet, but they are not free. Because of intense competition, companies are using any means necessary to gather data on their target market. Often companies that offer free credit reports want your information so they can sell it to third parties where you have no control how or when your private information is used. Also, loyalty programs are widely used, offering consumers (supposed) discounts and benefits in exchange for their private information and the ability to track their purchases. An example of this is the “Reward Zone” at Best Buy. The consumer is given a card and a membership code, which they swipe or punch in every time they make a purchase. After they make $500 in purchases, they receive a $5 gift card. But what does the company gain? The ability to track exactly what you are buying, and for what price. They can track consumers’ spending habits and send you special coupons, promotions, or “new arrival” newsletters based upon your previous purchasing habits. If you are price sensitive and only buy during really good sales, they will send you coupons more frequently. For example, I signed up for an account at Smartbargins.com. By providing them my private data, they promised to send me weekly newsletters with money-saving coupons. I received these newsletters, and when Smartbargains offered deals such as free shipping or 20% off select items, I would often click on the link and make a purchase. They were able to learn how price-sensitive I was and I now receive such coupons more frequently. If you went to Smartbargains.com today, you would see a site like Picture A.
But, since I have provided my private information I got an email that offered free shipping on orders over $75. I clicked on the link, and the site I saw different. On my Smartbargains.com website, I have a special banner that appears saying “special offer: Free standard shipping”. I was able to save $6 on shipping- but the real cost I pay is immeasurable. Smartbargains now is like “big brother”- they know exactly what I buy, and at what price. If you are an impulse buyer who likes the newest gadgets even at a high price, they won’t send you coupons- instead they will send you a “new arrivals” newsletter with higher priced items.
So what can you do? One of the most important things to do in protecting your information is to be very discerning when downloading files or accepting cookies. A lot of free software is available for download on the internet, but many of these free programs contain spyware to track your habits. First, always read the privacy policies before downloading anything. Next, be sure to use Spybot Search & Destory or Ad-aware, two reputable programs that actively find and delete cookies, adware, and spyware on your computer. If you use internet explorer, you should set your security settings to high to block cookies.
To do this, click on ‘Tools’, then ‘Internet Options’. Select the security tab, and make your security setting either “block all cookies” or “high”. There are also a few programs out there that can scan your computer and delete cookies, like Cookie Monster, which deletes cookies every time you open up your browser. (Microsoft Office.com, pg 1)
Don’t let them tell you the only way to save money is by signing up for their loyalty programs or weekly newsletters with “exclusive savings”. The example I gave previously about Smartbargains.com, where I signed up for the newsletter and got free shipping? Turns out, if I took two minutes to do a Google search, I’d find those savings were not really “exclusive.” Sites like Couponcabin.com, Currentcodes.com, and discounterdeals.com all have these same codes and “special links” to save money- and you don’t have to give up your private information to take advantage of it. When I checked, all three sites had the link to “free shipping” at smartbargains.com. If you click on the link, it will direct you to the smartbargins.com website with the banner for “free shipping”. You can purchase as a “guest” on Smartbargains.com, still save the $6, and never give up your private information.