The Watchdog: Don’t be fooled by Acxiom’s data release

An Arkansas company that collects information about us and then resells it to banks, retailers, insurance companies and others for a billion dollars a year in sales almost pulled a fast one on The Watchdog.

I was excited about the release of personal data by Acxiom on its free new website. I couldn’t wait to show you how to access your data so you can see what secrets a big-time data broker knows about you.

Great story: Your personal information released for the first time in history. What Big Brother keeps in his file.

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As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, then I studied why Acxiom did this. On the surface, the idea is that a watchdog columnist like me would brag on this new website. Wow. Cool. No corporate data broker ever did this before. How can you not respect Acxiom for being so transparent and revolutionary in the way it is suddenly treating us Americans?

You know, it almost worked.

A few things killed the positive vibe.

Turns out, Acxiom doesn’t have the purest of motives. Scott Howe, chief executive officer and president, has said in interviews that he wants his company to sit at the bargaining table when the federal government does what it so far has refused to do — set up regulations that show data brokers what they can do with information about us.

Hey, we’re open, the company’s message goes. We want you to see what we’re all about. “We are not going to get anywhere by hiding,” Howe told one reporter.

Oh really, sir? I went to the company’s new website — — and looked up my information. What I saw was a joke. This whole thing is a bogus public relations stunt. I’m not buying into it.

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The company’s information about me is mostly accurate. Acxiom knows the value of my house, the age of my youngest son and even my approximate income. But it also says I’m “interested” in the following areas: gourmet cooking, crafts, decorating and gardening. My wife is LOL when she reads that. (Who wants a watchdog doing that anyway? If I’m gourmet-cooking, making crafts, decorating and gardening, when would I investigate your problems?)

The problem for me is not that they got most things right and a few things comically wrong. My concern is what’s not in my report. My watchdog associate, Marina Trahan Martinez, showed me her personal report. It included her preferred political party, her recent online purchases and her family vehicles. My report didn’t include any of that information.

But that’s not all that’s missing. From my reading, I learned that Acxiom most likely possesses other information that it’s hiding from me.


The company uses shorthand slogans to categorize households — such as “Frugal Families” and “McMansions and Minivans,” The New York Times reported. My family’s nickname is left out.

The paper reported that Acxiom also sells descriptive phrases to customers about us with words such as “gambling,” “senior needs,” “smoker” and “adult with wealthy parents.”

Forbes reported that the company knows “some health topics of interest to you” such as diabetes or arthritis.

Other companies in the data broker business are said to collect information about sexual orientation, criminal and civil court records, credit history, health records and bank information.

Acxiom’s public disclosure only amounts to a sanitized version of a Big Brother file. This exercise is a feat of hocus-pocus, turning a glass of strong bourbon into a cup of milk. There’s no bite, no real privacy invasion, no truth to this data dump when compared with the type of information the company actually keeps.

I’d love to run all these thoughts by company leaders. I’ve been trying for two months to talk to them.

In July, the corporate communications manager answered that he would get in touch with me later. Last week, a company spokeswoman told me everyone is too busy. (Must be! Acxiom laid off 20 employees last month from its marketing division at Little Rock headquarters.)

I showed the website to Suku Nair, chairman of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Southern Methodist University. He’s not impressed.

“The site is not very secure,” he said. He’s right. To get your information, you type in only your name, address, date of birth and last four digits of your Social Security number. Think about that. Information you give all the time to others to confirm your identity is all that’s needed to enter this website.

Much of his personal information wasn’t correct, Nair said. The site allows you to edit your information and even opt out of Acxiom sharing your information with others. After this stunt, I’d recommend going to the site only if you want to opt out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Nair instructs that by visiting and giving your personal details to enter, you confirm the latest information about yourself. You’re doing their work for them.

AT A GLANCE: Protect yourself

Learn some of what Acxiom knows about you at Opt out of information sharing. Edit your data.

Remember, you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year at

Read privacy notices from companies and opt out of sharing.

Don’t answer surveys or fill out cards for drawings with personal information.

To get your name off mailing lists, visit Click on “Email Opt Out Service” and “Register for EDDM” to stop receiving certain kinds of commercial mail.

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Pharmacy staffers seeking your personal info put you at ID theft risk

My pet peeve: Sometimes when I’m sitting in a car repair shop or a car wash, I hear another customer talking loudly on a cellphone to a pharmacist. The customer orders medicine and blurts out name, address and date of birth.

Why don’t people step outside and talk in private? Don’t they realize that anyone else listening could use that information to engage in identity theft?

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Apparently, I’m not the only one with this kind of pet peeve. As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, for Christopher Dills, a retired high school journalism teacher, his sore spot is standing in line at a Walgreens pharmacy in Mansfield, where he lives, and being asked to give the same information. Recently, he got so upset that he complained to a store manager.

He says he understands the need for such information to make sure people get the right medicine. But he told the manager that he heard the name, address and Social Security numbers of two women in front of him.

“I refused to give my information out loud when I was called,” he said. “I explained firmly but nicely that I and anybody else could be at the homes of the ‘victims’ before they were because Walgreens made it possible.”

He asked the manager why an identification card showing the information wasn’t acceptable. He was told that those cards sometimes contain incorrect information and that answering orally was corporate policy.

He asked Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation, “Can you help stop this practice of needlessly putting people at risk?”

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I can, but first, let me share Walgreens’ response. It took me 11 days to get an answer from the company, and I had to send five pleading e-mails. But when a spokeswoman wrote back, she said the company had retrained the Mansfield staff in response to the complaint.

“We are committed to patient privacy,” Vivika Panagiotakakos wrote. “If a patient or caregiver would like to pick up medication, we do ask for patient information to help verify that the right prescription is given to the right customer.”

She said patients can ask to move to a private area. “In addition, many of our pharmacies do have signs near the counter to help promote patient privacy so customers can feel comfortable speaking to pharmacy staff.

“We have retrained our Mansfield staff about steps they can take to ensure patient privacy and making sure that only one customer is near the counter at a time.”

Another Walgreens pharmacy customer, Paul Diviney of Fort Worth, tells me he is so concerned about keeping his information private that he uses only the drive-through lane closest to the window so that when he speaks to the staff, other drivers can’t hear him.

CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis told me corporate policy for CVS stores is to ask for private information softly so others can’t hear. He says the information is sought at a separate window, which is not in the immediate pickup area. “Privacy is one reason we set it up like that,” he said.

Jay Foley, a founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said information as simple as a name, address and date of birth is “enough to get the ball rolling” for an identity thief.

He told the story of a case in a California pharmacy several years ago involving a woman who regularly roamed the aisles. Pharmacy staffers thought she was lonely. “She’d talk to people and seemed like a pretty harmless lady,” he said.

Turns out she wasn’t so harmless. When she was arrested on charges of identity theft, police found her carrying the names of 18 people and their Social Security numbers, all of whom were customers of that pharmacy.

Foley’s solution: “If I were a customer, what I would do is take a slip of paper and write the answers down and show it to the clerk. Then I’d take that piece of paper home and shred it.”

Panagiotakakos said that would work in Walgreens stores.

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber