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Color of Money Live With Michelle Singletary
with Gerri Detweiler, co-founder of MoneyForMail.com
Tuesday, April 25, 2000 at 2 p.m.

Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary

My grandmother always said never give your personal business away. She meant don't divulge information about yourself to everybody and their grandmother. But these days most of us don't have a choice. Our personal data is being sold to the highest bidder.

Well finally at least one company has stepped up to say we ought to be paid for information. A new web site called MoneyForMail.com has started up and pays consumers 20 cents to $2.50 to view ads.

Gerri Detweiler
Gerri Detweiler

Joining me today is one of the co-founders of this site, Gerri Detweiler, a long-time consumer advocate. Detweiler is also an advocate and expert on Internet privacy issues. So let's talk about getting paid for our personal information and what we should keep private at any cost.

Michelle Singletary: Hey folks. Welcome to another discussion about money. And today it's about getting paid for your personal information. Lots of people are worried about their privacy particularly when it comes to the Internet. MoneyForMail.com says it has the answer and perhaps will start a new trend. That is paying folks to willingly give out their personal business. But is this site safe? And how much can you earn or are we talking about just chump change. Well ask Gerri.

rindge, nh: How secure is your site with my personal information?

Gerri Detweiler: We keep consumer information confidential, our site is secure and protected by VeriSign...We email the ads so our advertisers never get personal information about our members.

hollywood, FL: what happens to my private information once I have sent it to M4M ? Do you share it with anyone else?

Gerri Detweiler: We don't share your personal information with our advertisers. They just tell us what type of consumer they'd like to reach and we email the ads to the appropriate consumers.

Silver Spring, MD: I have found that a lot of my friends and co-workers who use the Internet regularly still do not even know how cookies work, or even what they are. What do you think can be done to educate people to be cautious consumers the way they would in the non-virtual world?

Gerri Detweiler: Cookies are little programs that can keep track of your computer. When you visit or revisit a web site it can be helpful to have cookies remember who you are. On the other hand, cookies can keep track of what web sites you have visited -- without your knowledge -- and some people consider that an invasion of privacy. On our web site at www.moneyformail.com we have tips for what we call "safe surfing" or protecting your privacy online. Feel free to pass that information on.

Michelle Singletary: How can consumers using your site rack up more dough. Twenty cents doesn't seem like a lot of money. How can they get to the $2.50 mark?n And do you send out cash for such small amounts?

Gerri Detweiler: The beauty of the Internet is that we can pay small amounts, build them up in an account, and send a check when the account reaches $10 (our minimum level for sending a check). We will be giving consumers the option of suplementing their personal information with additional data, like information from their credit report, soon. With that information, profiles will command a much higher price. Of course, consumers will still remain anonymous.

Michelle Singletary: Following my column this week lots of readers want to know why you require them to give up their social security number. Isn't that generally considered a no no. Is it necessary to participate in this program?

Gerri Detweiler: We have asked for the social security number for two reasons:

1. To report wages as required by the IRS -- since we pay cash, and

2. To allow us to verify the identity of the member so we know these are real individuals, and not one person using 6 different email addresses. That allows us to command a higher price from advertisers for our members.

But consumers are rightly nervous about providing that information, so we are working on a program that will eliminate that requirement -- very soon.

Michelle Singletary: So exactly how do I protect myself from nosey "cookies." Who knew a snack could be a problem.

Gerri Detweiler: The problem with cookies is that if you say no, your web experience may be much less enjoyable! You may not be able to get on some web sites, or parts of some web sites, for example. Not all cookies are bad, but consumers should have a choice. You may want to enable your browser to alert you to cookies (under the preferences for your browser, ie netscape or Internet Explorer) but that may prove annoying. Enlightening but annoying.

swampscott, MA: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in consumer advocacy and how that comes into play with moneyformail?

Gerri Detweiler: My entire career up to MoneyForMail.com has been working for nonprofit consumer education organizations including Bankcard Holders of America and the National Council of Individual Investors.

At MoneyForMail.com, we are trying to show that good business and consumer protection can go hand in hand. We are working to educate our members about privacy and good credit and we are trying to empower them to take back control of their personal information.

Silver Spring, MD: I couldn't agree more about the negatives of "giving" personal information away or providing free advertising space for designers, manufacturers, or sales agencies. Who gave web sites the right to put cookies on the better to track where the user goes?

Gerri Detweiler: Unfortunately, many companies believe that if they collect information, they own it! We don't see it that way. In my opinion, credit reporting agencies should pay us every time they sell our personal information.

Olney, MD: Do people get paid just for receiving mail, or do they have to "click through" to receive credit?

Gerri Detweiler: We don't give you a test to see if you read the ad...we judge "reading the ad" by virtue of the fact that you clicked through to the advertisers web page. You click through and you get paid. Advertisers only pay for those ads where members clicked through.

Silver Spring, MD: Does MoneyForMail pass along identifiable information, or does it only offer profiles to its clients? In other words, how safe would my personal information be if I signed up? And if a user were to follow an ad banner and then divulge personal information as part of a transaction, is there any limit to the uses of that information? Are your advertisers held to a privacy policy or code of conduct?

Gerri Detweiler: We don't pass along any personally identifiable information to members. We keep control of the information and mail the ads ourselves. We also encourage our members, when they sign up, to download the free Enonymous.com software which automatically rates the privacy policy of any web site they visit. When they click through to our advertisers web site, then, a rating would pop up. We are also working on privacy standards for our advertisers. But keep in mind a recent study by Enonymous.com found only 3.5% of the top 30,000 sites earned their highest 4 star rating!

tiffin, OH: So the advertiser never actually see any information about the consumers? They only know what type of consumer gets eah message?

Gerri Detweiler: Correct. Advertisers don't get personal info on our members.

Sequim, WA: If spamming is illegal, then why do I get som much unsolicited email? Some are sent to my email box, addressed to a different name altogether.

Gerri Detweiler: Spamming isn't necessarily illegal except in some states. The biggest problem is enforcement. Who's cracking down on these companies? Many of them are located overseas where they can't be reached anyway. We do have tips for stopping spam on our web site. Software programs can make you anonymous while you surf and can help cut down on it.

Tampa,FL: When will the program that does not require your SS# be up and running? How will things be handled once you reach the $600 mark?

Gerri Detweiler: We should have the SSN requirement eliminated in the next couple of weeks. While our members aren't earning $600 yet, we fully anticipate they will be able to, especially if they participate in our referral program where we refer friends and relatives (no spamming!) and earn an additional 5% from the mail we receive. We can keep track and request the SSN before we mail that $600 check.

Sarasota Florida: Do I need to purchase the advertiser's product to earn the fee?

Gerri Detweiler: You don't need to purchase anything to get paid to read email ads.

Memphis, TN: There are alot of get-paid-to-surf and get-paid-to-read-email programs on the net. What makes your unique?

Gerri Detweiler: I believe we are the only one that pays cash to read email ads targeted to your interests. We also have a very high level of confidentiality and have earned a 4 star rating from Enonymous for our privacy practices.

Michelle Singletary: Exactly why do you think your concept will work? If companies are already selling information about consumers without their permission how can we expect to make much money on sites like yours or others? Do you think there will be a time when consumers will get paid big bucks for freely providing personal information?

Gerri Detweiler: First of all, our advertisers are guaranteed that they will pay only for those ads our members click through. The click through rate on banner ads is typically one half of one percent. Ours is 100% Second of all, our advertisers have found that an average of 17% of our members who click through do business with them! They're happy and our members are happy -- win-win all around.

marblehead, ma: Why would I choose MoneyForMail over other click for money sites?

Gerri Detweiler: You don't have to choose among them. But I think you'll find that we will do a great job of keeping your information confidential, and we'll educate you for free on privacy and credit topics if you need that help. We consider it a membership relationship and we're working to establish trust with members.

Lansing, IL: What kind of offers are we talking about for consumers, I'd like to get specialized discounts to my demographic but no sites really do that to well

Gerri Detweiler: Recent advertisers have included NetFlip.com, Gator.com, X:Drive, Qwuest...we are working all the time on developing better ways to target our members for ads they want. It doesn't benefit you or the advertiser if it's not well targeted.

Michelle Singletary: I have to say I'm learning as much today from readers as I am from asking my own questions. I never knew about cookies or enonymous.com. I'm more paranoid than ever now.

Michelle Singletary: What's the best strategy to protect your personal information? In other words how can one limit the number of companies that collect and sell our information without our approval? Seems to be the more we protect our data the more valuable it becomes?

Gerri Detweiler: First of all, don't give out information unless you know what the privacy policy is of a web site. Enonymous is good for that too.

Don't assume that if you only give out your email address they can't find out anything about you...any piece of information can be valuable.

Consider using a "dummy mailbox" like at a free Internet service so you can give out that address when you surf. And tell companies when they ask for personal information that you want to know what you're getting first! I loved the hood ornament example in the Post article.

Tampa, FL: Can my husband and I both sign up?

Gerri Detweiler: Yes, both you and your husband can both sign up. You may get different ads depending on your profile.

Cave Creek, AZ: I am a member with m4m and I think your site is terrific! It's about time consumer's were offered the ability to have some control over the information they receive and who sees their personal information. Do you think that m4m will continue to grow and offer even more ads to read?

Gerri Detweiler: Our goal is to send our members 30 -- 50 ads per month and earn $10 -- $25 a month. Many of our members are clamoring for more ads and our advertisers want more members! So stick with us while we grow and tell others (no spamming). You can earn an additional 5% from people you refer when they read ads.

Michelle Singletary: Say if your company is passing along 85 percent of what it gets from advertisers how can you make any "real" profits to make this venture work? And how can members be assured that your policy won't change in the future if in fact making money becomes a problem? Not that I don't trust you Gerri (I've reported on her in the past and found her a very good consumer advocate). But I've got my grandmother's skeptical genes you know.

Gerri Detweiler: You should be skeptical. We are the ONLY high tech company I know of that has actually gone public in favor of federal legislation to protect consumers' privacy on the Internet. We think this should be regulated so companies can't bait and switch consumers.

We get paid in volume...the nice thing about the Internet is that it makes a win-win model feasible.

Palo Alto CA: do you see a day that we will get paid everytime our credit report gets pulled by a creditor?

Gerri Detweiler: That's what we're working on! It's always bothered me that credit bureaus collect our info without asking us, sell it without paying us (and they make a lot of $$ from it!) then turn around and charge US to see a copy of our OWN report! That should change.

WDC: I signed up for Money for Mail nearly two months ago. I filled out all your surveys & so far I've only earned $1.40. I've never received a message that paid more than 20 cents. My fear is that I've already given you a lot of personal information that you are selling, but I am never going to get any money out of the deal, since you won't send me a check until I reach $10. At this rate, it could take more than a year!

Gerri Detweiler: Thanks for sticking with us. While the site has been up for a year, we didn't officially launch until about twelve weeks ago. Up until then it was word of mouth and building the technical infrastructure. We really are starting to line up the advertisers and build the membership base we need to attract more members. You got in on the ground floor and we'll work hard to see everyone gets more ads!

wash, dc: What "hood ornament example" ?

Gerri Detweiler: In Michelle's Washington Post article, she said she expects companies to compensate her for example, when a car dealership puts its license plate holder on her car -- she asks for free mats or tells them to take it off! She said she'd take off the hood ornament but her husband thinks it
s too extreme. :-)

Cave Creek, AZ: Could you please explain exactly how the referral program would work?

Gerri Detweiler: In the referral program, you tell friends and family members about us. We give you a referral code. If they sign up, every time they read an ad, you get an additional 5%.
There's only one level of referral so it's not multilevel marketing, and we don't allow spamming to get members.

Briarwood, NY: I run a proxy server on my PC and I only allow cookies to certain sites. Will I have to allow cookies by the advertisers, by MoneyForMail, or by both, in order to be credited for clicking through on an ad?

Gerri Detweiler: No we don't run cookies on our site and you don't need to allow cookies. Sorry for the delay, took me a minute to double check with our tech team.

Michelle Singletary: I've a hard consumer to sell to. For every car I've bought I demand something free or a discount before I allow the dealership to put their logo on MY car. I don't believe in giving away any of my personal body space or that of anything I own. It's my own little way of protecting my space and not providing free advertising to any company. After all if Jordan can get paid millions for wearing some company's shirt or shoes than I think I deserve some bucks too. Of course I don't dunk like Jordan but I'm just as cute.

Tampa, FL: What is the factor that determines the amount you get paid for the ad? How many ads would a person receive a day/week?

Gerri Detweiler: Right now I would say about 5-10 ads per month...but we're working hard to move that up to 25 -- 50 per month. If you get in now and hang in there we'll do our best to get the ads flowing!

Dallas, TX: In one of the earlier questions, you mentioned that MFM would be providing privacy and credit education to your users. How will you do that?

Gerri Detweiler: We'll be doing that through specially trained credit and privacy mentors who will be able to answer members' questions both online and offline. We also have developed a number of free educational articles on our web site.

My background is in credit education and I've written three topics on the subject.

Detroit, MI: How large is your company? Where is it located?

Gerri Detweiler: We have offices in Palo Alto CA, Phoenix AZ and Sarasota FL. We have about 30 employees and growing all the time. Feel free to visit the employment section of our web site if you know someone who might be interested! ;-)

Michelle Singletary: Will there be a time when you will pay consumers in so-called "Internet" currency? Personally, I like cold, hard cash but perhaps it might be easier for people to use the Internet currency sooner rather than wait to build up $10 to generate a check.

Gerri Detweiler: Yes, we are working on that and will be able to pay people in a variety of ways. We get a lot of interest from consumers overseas too so that would be very helpful.

Tampa, FL: What determines how much you get paid for the ad?

Gerri Detweiler: Depends on how much the advertiser pays...you as a consumer get the bulk of the money paid by the advertiser to reach you. How much the advertiser pays depends on the level of targeting.

Atlanta, GA: How could you tell if I actually register with a fake name and social security number? Not that I would, but I am sure people will try.

Gerri Detweiler: We run your name and information by the credit reporting agency solely for verification. We don't get any credit report information, though we will in the future -- only with consumers' written permission, though.

Orlando, FL: Why would anyone want to give your site there personal information?

Gerri Detweiler: The idea is that you give personal information so you can get paid to read ads. I realize it may not appeal to everyone. But keep in mind that consumers often give up a lot of information without even realizing it. Every day, companies buy and sell information about us without our knowledge or permission.

Rock City, MI: Is it true that advertisers can just buy your full credit report from the credit agancies? Is this what you're trying to do too? I don't want advertisers seeing my credit report!

Gerri Detweiler: No advertisers can not get your credit report. The only people who can legally get your credit report are employers, creditors and insurance companies and it has to be for a legitmate purpose. (ie, a promotion, credit application or insurance application).

But companies can currently buy from at least one credit bureau lists of consumers who meet certain criteria -- have a finance company account or home equity loan, for example.

Phoenix, AZ: Is your company going to publicly traded anytime soon?

Gerri Detweiler: We are currently a private company. We'll see how the business grows.

Hudson, OH: What if I do not have a checking account? I am only 13 and would like to start earning money and refer my friends. By the way, I am off school today because of a teacher conference!

Gerri Detweiler: Thanks for joining us! Because of laws and concerns over the privacy of personal information of young consumers, our program is only for adults. I hope you'll come back in a few years!

Cave Creek, AZ: Will there be an inquiry showing on my credit report when you verify my social security information?

Gerri Detweiler: No inquiry will be placed on your file by doing the verification.

Chicago, IL: Are there some pretty good offers for members? I'm a member of yesmail but it's been kind of like NOmail lately

Gerri Detweiler: I hope you'll find the offers attractive -- that's our advertisers' goal and ours. We welcome members' feedback on how we can make the site better.

Michelle Singletary: And I'm glad Hudson mention he or she was out of school on the Q-T. I don't want to have to call anybody's momma cuz their baby is playing hooky.

denver, CO: What kind of credit information will your site be able to supply and will there be a charge? Is there a charge to become a member?

Gerri Detweiler: Membership is free and there are no plans to charge members for that or for any information they may choose for us to ad to their profile to make it more valuable.

Davis, CA: My kids are Internet junkies, is there a minimum age requirement to join?

Gerri Detweiler: There is a federal internet law regarding the collection and use of information on consumers age 13 and younger. Because of that and other concerns, we only market to adults.

colorado springs, co: What does the future of moneyformail.com look like? any plans that I should know about?

Gerri Detweiler: Based on the feedback we've been getting from consumers, the media and advertisers, we think we'll really be able to grow and influence the future of advertising!

Reston, VA: Can my friend and family overseas in Nigeria participate?

Gerri Detweiler: They may sign up from anywhere in the world. We are working on expanding to bring programs to other countries, but in the meantime anyone is welcome to join.

Michelle Singletary: Well it's 3 and that means that's all folks. Great questions. Hard questions. Skeptical questions. That means you are doing your job. I'm proud. It's important as consumers we protect ourselves but also look for opportunities that are in our best interest. Come back real soon. And look for me now on MSNBC's new show called "HomePage" (1-4 EST) I do regular money segments twice a week. And don't forget to come back in two weeks to www.washingtopost.com for another discussion on one of my favorite topics - Money. See ya.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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