In the weeks leading up to July 1, 2001, as Miami resident Essie Mae Williams busily went about her life, she noticed that she was being bombarded with mail from Sears, First Union, and Bank of America–companies with whom she’s been doing business for years.
“I have received a lot of letters in legalistic terms that have words so tiny that I have to get my glasses,” says the recently retired math teacher. “The letters are so long that I look over them briefly and put them aside until I have time to read them entirely for understanding.”
The mail Williams is receiving are opt-out letters, the result of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1999. The bill requires all financial institutions to inform their current and former customers how their personal and financial information is to be disclosed, shared, and sold to its affiliates and other companies. Disclosed financial information could include salaries, credit ratings, and household spending, while personal information could include whether you receive alimony or child-support payments.
Congress initially requested that these letters be sent out by November 2000, but many financial institutions asked for the date to be pushed back and Congress granted them until July 1, 2001. And while corporations such as banks, credit card, and insurance companies are sending out the notices as mandated by law, many are not making them clear enough to be easily understood by consumers. On the contrary, the documents are often designed to mask the letter’s intent. Consequently, if a client does not actually sign the form to opt out, their private information can and will be sold.
Many of these confusing forms will present unclear options (i.e., check here if you would like us to limit the sale of your personal information). “Limit” does not mean “restrict.” Other letters use unfamiliar words, lengthy sentences, come in the form of junk mail, provide no clearly indicated return address, and require that you locate and list your account number.
“It is really negative marketing. The question is, are these forms really being designed to get the consumer’s attention as required by law?” queries Tena Friery, research director for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education group in San Diego. “According to the law, they should be understandable, but they are written on a graduate school level.”
If you are like Williams and have not had the time to read the notices or discarded them not realizing what they were, you can still contact the companies with whom you do business and opt out. “Consumers have a continuing right to opt out,” says Friery.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has developed form letters at its Website (www.privacyrights.org) and lists the Websites and phone numbers of major companies to help simplify the process. Likewise, Privacy Rights Now (www.privacyrightsnow.com) has a form letter as well as the contact information for privacy and consumer groups where you might voice your concerns. The site also has the names and addresses of your legislators.
“It is a