I'm Not Your Target!

A couple of red flags for the consumer have appeared lately. We wanted to be certain that all of you are aware of them.

It is becoming increasingly common for websites to insist that you register before obtaining information. I have run into this just in searching for background on artists and art movements, but it seems to be catching on in too many places. The only choice is DO NOT REGISTER! Guard your personal data like a private Fort Knox. At the very least you will be inundated with annoying spams and targeted sales pitches. At the worst you have exposed yourself to possible theft. Personally I have yet to run across a site that I couldn't bypass and find the information elsewhere. One misuse of the data is called "hostile profiling": a potential spammer feeds thousands of email addresses into a site requiring registration. Those that come back with a message, "this email already taken" then become the target of the spammers' activities, which may eventually lead them to social security numbers and othe information subject to abuse.

Be very careful with extended warranty contracts. I recently bought a tiny laptop computer at a local discount electronics store. When I visited the Sony store nearby it turned out that not only did they offer the same price for the machine, but their two-year warranty cost $59, whereas the "discount" store had charged me $250. for the same warranty. The discount store was duly chastised and refunded the difference.

And speaking of less-than-perfect products, Microsoft is planning to start charging a subscription fee for the updates and patches that it has been providing free to its registered users. Not only will you have to pay for the software, but now you will have to pay them to put bandaids on their sloppy engineering as well.

As for information charges, The New York Times, which until now has required registration to read its online edition, will begin charging fees for its op-ed columnists. Somehow the original spirit of the Internet - the open sharing of data - has been buried under the 24/7 shopping mall mentality.

The old "Bait and Switch" is finding its way into supposedly respectable institutions. At a major international bank, for example, I found that bank officers would quote one rate or fee structure but the monthly statement would have much higher charges. I got a variety of creative excuses: "That person is no longer here"; "You must have misunderstood"; "I'll look into it" (they're still looking, after six months). In the meantime the charges are compounding. My response was to close all my accounts and look into another bank. Remember: it's YOUR money. Fight for it.

If you hold a Visa or Mastercard, turn it over and next to your signature write the words "check ID" with a sharpie. Not necessary with an American Express card. This will give you added protection against someone else using your card.

Bottom line: unless we, as consumers, start objecting vociferously to some of these practices, they will proliferate and contaminate. The operative slogan is: I'm Not Your Target.

c.Corinne Whitaker 2005