You're ready to pay. But, first, the cashier has a question: "Did you find everything you were looking for?" Or maybe it's "Do you have our advantage card?" Hey, even "Paper or plastic?" is pushing the envelope these days.
Getting the third degree in the checkout line can be a pain. But there are two questions that really drive consumers out the marketplace door. Especially now as privacy concerns loom larger than ever before:
Can I get your phone number?
Can I have your Zip code?
Don't even think the go-ballistic request: "Can I have your Social Security number?" Not a chance. Even though they already have it, along with all the other info -- unless you're living off the grid.
"Usually they ask for either phone number or Zip code, never both, but it's still odd," says Fairfax reader Arlene Fletcher, adding that such inquiries are standard at clothing stores and big electronics chains where she shops.
She's not consumer-paranoid, but she doesn't like the questions. She suspects the worst: that complying like some shopper drone will get you more telemarketing calls and more junk mail, maybe even put your personal data at risk.
At the very least, checking out of a store shouldn't be a test. "Why do they ask for your info?" asks Fletcher. "What do they use it for?"
Consumers aren't comfortable giving up information about themselves anymore. Not even the impersonal Zip code. And who can blame them? American corporations, including major financial institutions that eat your personal info for breakfast, such as Bank of America, Citigroup and MasterCard, have suffered troubling data breaches over the past year or so, making the data on more than 50 million consumers vulnerable to crooks.
Those questions are "actually pretty annoying," says Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute, an Elk Rapids, Mich., research organization studying privacy, data protection and information security. "But they're really not a major cause of privacy violations."
Beyond the irritation factor, he assures, checkout-line inquiries seldom intrude further. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, what is happening is they are doing an aggregate demographic analysis by location of the store," he says. "If you are worried that they now have the history of what you buy at the store, it could happen, but that possibility is pretty remote."
Particularly when stores ask for Zip codes. Robert S. Seiner, president of KIK Consulting & Educational Services LLC in Pittsburgh and publisher of the Data Administration Newsletter, says giving out your Zip code isn't risky "unless you're the only person who lives in that Zip code area.
"All they want to know," he adds, "is, 'Where are our customers coming from, what are they buying, and how can we better market to customers in that area?' "
What's paradoxical, says Seiner, is the consumer who balks over providing a Zip code or phone number yet doesn't think twice about whipping out a supermarket loyalty card to get a 25-cent discount on, say, a box of Ex-Lax . Or fills out a store survey for a one-in-a-million chance to win a $50 gift certificate.
Loyalty cards collect scary-depth information, he says, such as who goes into their stores, at what time of day, what they buy at that time of day -- a complete record of purchases analyzed into buying habits. "They use it in a lot of ways that are good for the customers and not so good . . . from stocking the store to data mining."
To go full circle, some stores now say they ask for Zip codes when customers pay by credit card to help prevent identity theft. "It's another way of confirming that the user is the right user of the credit card," says Seiner, "because that information isn't on the credit card itself."
But what about Seiner, who's in the business of info-management? He says he doesn't give any information other than Zip code -- unless it's required when he pays by check or credit card. He also says that if more consumers would resist, more stores would stop asking.
"I don't know if it will stop completely," he says, "but if more people started complaining, you'd see fewer stores doing it."
For years Radio Shack was among the most aggressive retailers in demanding personal information from customers. Before you could buy, it was practically name, rank and serial number. And customers complained. Some stopped shopping at the chain.
"We had become the whipping boy. . . . People would come in and buy a pack of batteries and they didn't understand why you needed their name and address," says Charles Hodges, spokesman for Radio Shack Corp., insisting that all the information collected was kept confidential, never shared or sold. Though it could put customers on Radio Shack's catalogue list.
But Hodges says the information requests were "becoming more and more of a sore spot" for the company. Even his wife told him she "hated" going to Radio Shack because of it.
In 2002, the company stopped collecting anything but Zip codes and instructed its employees to tread gently when requesting even that small bit of information. The Zip codes are volunteered, not mandatory, says Hodges, and help the company make decisions about its 5,000 store locations and product mix. "We felt the pain was outweighing the benefits," he says of the decision to stop prying.
Still, everyone seems to have checkout-line war story. Hodges remembers paying by check at a software store that pulled out an ink pad at the register and demanded that he press his thumb print on the back of the check.
Ponemon recalls an electronics store where the cashier insisted the law required him to provide his phone number. He refused. The manager showed him the store's training manual that stated, "If someone asks why they need to provide a telephone number, tell them it's the law."
Did he give it up? "No, I didn't," he says. "Typically they will not insist. They give you this dirty look like, 'What are you hiding from us?' But if they ask again, I just give them a bogus number. . . . I'm a privacy-centric guy, so I don't like the idea of volunteering any information."
Homes Gone, but Not Mortgages
Hurricane Katrina evacuees, your mortgage companies want to hear from you. Never mind that your homes may be damaged or destroyed. Or that the natural disaster eliminated your job.
The financial fact of life is that, despite the devastation, your mortgage payments are due on time. Don't pay the mortgage? Risk late-payment fees, credit-rating damage, even losing what's left of your home.
The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) is encouraging Katrina victims to contact their mortgage companies ASAP. Most are offering extended grace periods and postponing late penalties and foreclosure action for borrowers in the Zip codes designated as federal disaster areas. Some are even helping victims contact their insurance companies.
The MBA has posted a list of top mortgage companies servicing loans in the disaster areas on its Web site at www.mortgagebankers.org.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.