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.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

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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The Watchdog: Secret scores supposedly reveal who consumers are

You probably know the score of the latest game for your favorite baseball team. You may know your credit score. But you probably don’t know about other secret scores that companies keep on you.

They are your consumer scores, sometimes called e-scores or predictive scores. Hundreds of them exist, but they’re hidden from view. Trade secrets. Except they’re about your life. And they could be wrong.

A report this week called “The Scoring of America” by the World Privacy Forum gives samples of these e-scores:

The Job Security Score is supposed to predict future income and ability to pay.

Churn scores predict when a customer will jump from one company to a competitor.

The Affordable Care Act health risk score is “a proxy score for how sick a person is,” the report states.

The Medication Adherence Score predicts if a person likely takes medication recommended by doctors. And on and on. Divorced? Pregnant? A hunter? A gardener? An antique collector? There’s scores for those, too.

Some of this sounds benign. But privacy experts say the problem is that these scores along with, say, your ZIP code and whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, a phone or a laptop, even what kind of Internet browser you use, are all in play now when you visit websites.

How? They show companies who you are, or something close enough.

Ultimately, you may pay a higher price for a service or a product based on your score, or where you live (or where your computer thinks you live). That’s called price discrimination, and it’s happening more and more. These scores could affect housing and employment opportunities and prices for products and services.

Most people don’t realize this is happening, the Federal Trade Commission says.

When you visit a website or read an item on a blog, that site usually places a “cookie” on your device — a random 20-digit number that records what you do on the Internet.

When you visit a Web page that has space for an ad, a real-time auction occurs in a fraction of a second between various computerized bidders who want to match up with certain high scores. The winner is the ad you see.

Other factors, such as purchasing habits and activities in the real world, also affect scores. Income. Car. Education. Political affiliation. Average offline purchase cost. Hundreds of details.

Scores affect us in ways we can’t know. At some company call centers, a score can determine how long someone waits on hold or whether a customer gets to speak to a high-ranking supervisor.

I learned about these scores at a privacy seminar presented by the FTC. Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told everyone that the unregulated market is “a non-transparent system where thousands of bits of our lives are being collected about us, shared and used to decide not who should pay less, but who can pay more.”

He added that nobody wants to pay more “and it’s fine for a company to offer its better customers discount cards. But nobody wants to be put in a compartmentalized box where they are profiled in a secret way and where a set of scores is used to determine who will pay more.”

The best known example of price discrimination is a story about a stapler. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal tested online pricing for a stapler at The results showed that the prices varied based on how close a customer lived to a competing office supply store. If rival stores were within 20 miles, Staples discounted its price. Staples did not respond to a request for information from The Watchdog.


That same year witnessed perhaps the most extraordinary example of predictive scoring. After President Obama won re-election by a larger-than-expected margin, attention focused on his election team’s predictive scoring system. Democrats claimed they could ID likely voters almost block by block. By comparison, on Election Day the Republicans’ turnout software crashed during crucial voting hours.

Targeting customers is nothing new in marketing. If you’re reading this on, we’re reading you too.

In the case of the scores, though, the science behind computer algorithms has exploded. Science, as is usually the case, is far ahead of rule-making.

Yet there’s a clear path to follow: Several decades ago, personal credit scores were secretive and unavailable. Yet they played a similar role in determining financial offers and opportunities. But in the past decade, things changed. Now every adult American has a right to learn about her or his personal credit score. One can challenge inaccuracies and learn if a poor credit score hurt chances for a loan.

Scoring can’t be stopped, but there can be fairness and disclosure similar to credit score rules. Nobody expects Congress to act on this. The hope among privacy advocates is that rule changes will come from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FTC.

We should be able to see our scores. Correct them when they’re wrong. Opt out of them being used, if we wish. There should be no secret scores that affect our pocketbooks.

Final note: The Federal Trade Commission recommended in 2014 that this industry become regulated. Congress, however, is not expected to act on this.

IN THE KNOW: Web privacy

To protect privacy, periodically delete cookies from your computer or device. Use a search engine to find out how to delete cookies for your particular device and browser.

Anti-virus software programs provide various settings for collecting and rejecting cookies.

Use “private browser” or “privacy mode” on the Web to hide your identity when researching health and other private matters. This feature doesn’t save cookies, temp files and page history. But an Internet provider still knows what pages are accessed.

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Learn about data breaches to protect yourself

data breach 1

data breach 2

data breach 3

Pay attention to your Facebook privacy settings

Facebook, as Betty White so famously said on Saturday Night Live earlier this month, “sounds like a huge waste of time.” [Watch video here.] But it’s also a way to keep up with your friends, learn more about life around you and — wait for it — have your privacy violated or get scammed.

Dave Lieber explores Internet privacy

Facebook honchos are constantly tinkering with the site’s privacy settings. Recently, Facebook made it harder to log on to the social networking site from a strange computer or cellphone. That’s supposed to stop scammers from stealing your identity and fooling your friends into sending them money because they believe you’re in trouble.

That change didn’t come soon enough for Sergio Haynes of Fort Worth. After his pal’s Facebook account was hijacked, Haynes received an e-mail, supposedly from his buddy, giving the usual story about how his friend was stuck in London after being mugged. The friend needed Haynes to wire $1,500 via Western Union so his friend could get home. Haynes didn’t recognize the popular scam.

“He’s my buddy,” Haynes remembers thinking. “I know he’s good for the money.”

So he sent it.

Only later did he learn that his friend wasn’t in London, didn’t get robbed and didn’t receive the money.

This scam has happened hundreds, if not thousands of times. [Read my earlier Dave Lieber column on this scam here.] Finally, Facebook announced this month that it is doing something about it. The site has created a new feature that notifies users when someone tries to access their account from a device the user doesn’t generally use. Users will receive a warning e-mail or text message.

Facebook will double up the new security check by asking the user on the strange device to identify a birth date or name a friend in a photo.

How does a Facebook account get hijacked? I’ve found two of the most common ways are to leave Facebook open on your computer and not log off, allowing someone else to take over.

The other way is by responding to an e-mail that alerts you that someone is inviting you to join in or look at their photos. To do so, you have to type your user name and password to gain access. Only the e-mail is a fake and the hacker captures your personal log-on information. So it’s best to log on to Facebook at the site itself, not through an e-mail.

But Facebook’s privacy problem goes far deeper than hackers. The company has begun experimenting with ways to make more money by making your information available to third-party Web sites. Facebook has done so much tinkering with its privacy settings in recent weeks that confusion among users is the norm. There are 50 different settings with 170 options. That’s a lot of button clicking to protect yourself from the prying eyes of others.

The New York Times recently created a chart of the privacy settings that was so complex it was nearly indecipherable. The outcry over the complex settings prompted Facebook’s chief of public policy to announce Tuesday, according to the Web site, that, “We are going to be providing options for users who want simplistic bands of privacy that they can choose from, and I think we will see that in the next couple of weeks.”

The ultimate way to protect your privacy on Facebook is to edit what your friends can share about you to complete privacy and set your activity so that only you can see it. Go to “Applications and Websites” under privacy settings and limit them, too.

When Facebook does changes its privacy settings again, pay attention. Facebook shares information about its latest activities at

One problem to watch: Many privacy features require you to opt in rather than opt out. By default, your information is public. So if you do nothing, you may have no privacy at all.


Facebook privacy

Access your security settings by going to “Account” in the upper-right hand corner, then select Account Settings and Privacy Settings.

Keep outsiders from logging into your account by going to Account Settings, then Account Security and change No to Yes for alerts of strange devices trying to access your account. offers a handbook to help you understand privacy settings.

Create a second or “junk” e-mail account using a free service such as gmail or yahoo or hotmail to protect your real e-mail address from spam and hackers.

Learn more at by searching for “Facebook privacy.” Visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation at

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation book won two national awards for social change.