By all appearances, the survey was as anonymous as they come. It asked shareholders of GE Investments for thoughts about the company's service, the quality of its products and ways to improve. There was no place to put a name.
What the survey failed to mention to the 15,000 recipients -- most of them employees of General Electric Co., the giant parent firm -- is that officials would quickly find out who filled in the circles indicating "Unacceptable," "Average" and "Outstanding."
That's because the company included a code on the return envelope that corresponded with information in the company's shareholder database, allowing the company to surreptitiously identify every respondent.
A GE Investments official raved about the technique in a letter to the printer that helped devise the method. "This was, on the surface, a simple task requiring printing and collating various pieces for each shareholder's use. However, the hard part came with our request to be able to `secretly' identify each respondent in the most discreet way," said the letter to Harty Press Inc. of New Haven, Conn.
"I must especially compliment one of your employees. . . . Her suggestion enabled us to secrete the code in a manner least likely to attract attention from the respondents," the letter said. "She's terrific!"
Yesterday, however, the company said it would drop the practice after receiving a phone call about it from The Washington Post.
Such ploys have been used for years by some market researchers, who pine for personal information about consumers but know that respondents sometimes grow shy when they must include their name on a survey. But the methods have become far smoother in recent years, as computer technology makes it easier than ever before to link coupons, surveys or other materials to databases of information about individuals.
The mechanism might be a bar code. It might be a cluster of dots. In the case of GE Investments' survey last year, a company official said, the identifying information was contained in series of numbers.
"Those sort of tricks are quite common in the survey industry," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a private Web site that offers consumer tips about privacy. "There's an assumption that reasonable people have that because their name does not appear they're anonymous. . . . In any survey, you should assume your response is not anonymous."
GE Investments is an money management arm of General Electric that oversees about $80 billion in assets for individual and institutional investors, said Tim Benedict, spokesman for the company. The survey went out last year to shareholders of the company's mutual funds, he said.
It was intended to help the company improve service and identify the particular concerns of individual investors, said Benedict, who noted that it did not say the answers would be confidential.
The survey asked shareholders to opine on such things as whether their quarterly and annual fund statements were accurate, tax reports understandable and other services easy to use. The most probing questions focused on whether shareholders need current income or longer-term investments. It also asked them to describe the percentage of their investments managed by the company. Benedict said it was the first -- and last -- time the company used such a code. The company said yesterday that in future surveys it would tell shareholders that the information they provide will be identifiable. Officials from Harty Press declined to discuss the matter.
"We basically didn't ask for the customer's name and address because we wanted to encourage a response," Benedict said, adding, "We wanted to know who was answering. . . . It was not to pull a fast one on our customers."
It's not likely that the GE employees who filled out the survey will believe that, according to an official at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a union that has members at the company.
"I'm appalled, although I'm not surprised," said Betsy Potter, president of a local office in Erie, Pa. "It's not honest. If they wanted to know who filled out the survey, all they had to do is ask."
Evan Hendricks, a civil liberties activist and publisher of Privacy Times, agrees. Hendricks said he believes many companies try such ruses to get more information than many consumers are willing to give.
"It's typical. As long as it's secret they get away with it," said Hendricks, who first obtained the GE Investments letter and will publish an account of it in his upcoming newsletter. "If it's such a great service, why can't they let the shareholders decide for themselves?"
CAPTION: Two questions from GE Investments' secretly encoded survey and a letter from a GE Investments official, who compliments a printer's ability to "to `secretly' identify each respondent in a most discreet way." GE Investments said it would stop the practice.