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This Is How Your Financial Data Is Being Used to Serve You Ads

Whether you like it or not

Your financial data is out there. Here's what it's doing.

Wait, who sees my credit card bill, again?

We've done a lot of work here at Adweek on ROI data, and a few readers have asked that we explain what on earth we're talking about, because it's a somewhat scary phenomenon to consumers—especially in an age when surveillance is such a hot topic—and a thrilling opportunity to advertisers.

Here's the short version: Everyone in advertising is buying exhaustive records of your purchases—all your purchases—and comparing them to your viewing habits so that they know which ads you saw and whether or not they changed your behavior.

If you feel like this is kind of invasive, that probably means you understand me so far.

All of Your Financial Information Is for Sale. Here's How It's Collected.

  1. When you shop frequently at a store, you get a points card so that you can get a discount or coupons. Stores give these away like they're going out of style, ostensibly to reward loyalty—Kmart, Walmart, Target, Walgreens and CVS all do this. Hell, I have a Godiva free-truffle-of-the-month card (SO WORTH IT). So that takes care of consumer packaged goods, or CPGs, which are a class of merchandise worth about $2 trillion, where growth has slowed. The category is defined a little more specifically as "products that need to be replaced frequently"—potato chips and toothpaste and toilet paper, as opposed to washing machines and armchairs.
     
  2. Two main companies, Acxiom and Experian, collect this data, among other data sets. Do you remember a few years ago when you ordered a credit check to see if you could qualify for financing on that pirate ship you wanted to buy? You probably got it from one of those guys. Now that you have your pirate ship, you've forgotten all about them, but they are expert data miners.

    Car registration data is acquired from companies that have access to DMV records, which became searchable by pretty much anyone who wants it thanks to a couple of clauses in the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Jim Moran wrote that bill to keep people who work at women's health clinics from being murdered by enterprising activists who were using the names of abortion providers to find their DMV records, which included their addresses. In his defense, 1994 was too long ago to foresee the use of anonymized data at scale by companies like Polk.
     
  3. The DPPA in particular is why companies like Acxiom, Experian, and other data brokers (and the companies that use data brokers) are skittish about publicity—the clauses that allow the use of this data are designed to expressly forbid the direct identification of anybody involved.
     
  4. So data brokers tip-toe right up to the edge of that line—they whitelist everything they have, meaning that they strip out names and addresses except for the ZIP +4 code (you know, 55555-5555, instead of just 55555. It designates a particular location—a city block, or one really big high-rise, or maybe a business that gets a ton of mail every day).

    Now, the problem with matching auto data to ZIP+4 is that ZIP+4 is actually not that easy to whitelist when it comes to, say, a Maserati on the Upper East Side. Chances are only one guy on that block owns a Maserati. A source told me a year or two ago that what data brokers are afraid of is "backing into identity," and that's a good way to put it. You're not setting out to invade privacy, you just want statistics so you can plan better. But you can get there by accident pretty easily, and that's why these companies are so careful.

    So we have consumer packaged goods, we have cars and we have houses in more or less the same way—but what about pharmaceuticals? They don't know I'm on Zoloft, do they? Actually, you buy your Zoloft from CVS, so yes, they do. Mortgage payments? Fruit? The couch you bought at Macy's?
     
  5. Well, you probably bought all that stuff with a credit card, and there's a company called Argus that one data company executive told me provides "the majority of credit card transactions" to them for the same purposes. Argus is good at that, too—Breitbart and Judicial Watch identified it among contractors the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is using to track American credit card data (it paid Argus $2.9 million in 2012). That covers pretty much everything else.

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