Chances are if you shop at a grocery store you have a rewards or loyalty card. These cards offer you special savings off sale items, points that can be redeemed for promotions and even savings at the gas pump. A simple swipe of the card loads your number into the register and allows you all those wonderful benefits of being “a member“. Have you ever stopped to think about where that information goes? Who has access to it? What it’s used for? Well, that question plagued me for the better part of two years; when I asked the grocery store manager some of those questions you would have thought I put a knife to his throat and FBI agents would be repelling from the ceiling. He looked at me, cocked his head to the side and said, “Why, exactly, do you want to know?“
Consumer privacy is a true oxymoron, that goes double where reward and loyalty programs are concerned. You can have an ultra paranoid person that guards every facet of her or her privacy, refuses to shop online, won’t talk to telemarketers and doesn’t belong to any mailing list freely give out their information to save a few dollars at the grocery store. If stores were able to tell you, without a doubt, that your information was safe then it wouldn’t be an issue but with all the recent cyber crimes and thefts, something somewhere needs to change.
One organization that speaks out about grocery store privacy invasion is C.A.S.P.I.A.N, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy And Numbering. This group was behind the now infamous “CVS Cyber Punch” that showed the website was flawed. A user could access to private information and purchase history by entering the reward card number, zip code and part of the card holders last name. Not exactly hard information to obtain when you consider it was printed on the receipt.
Some of the loyalty cards I have are Shop ‘N Save, Giant Eagle, CVS, Ralph’s, Safeway and Safeway. I knew when I signed up for these cards that my personal information might be shared with others so I limited what I filled out in regards to my birth date and home phone number. The pros of having a reward card, most of the time, outweigh the cons. My Giant Eagle card is linked to my checking account so I can cash checks at the store or write a check for purchases. It is also hooked up to their video game rentals department. The downside to all this is that if I lose that card or one of the key fobs, anyone can use it to redeem Fuel Perks (money off a gasoline purchase) or rent movies and never return them.
The root to reward and loyalty card criticism is pretty simple; how much information is enough? When you sign up for a card you are asked seemingly innocent questions; some are even so bold as to ask what your yearly income level is. When you swipe your card and make a purchase that information is stored in a computer; it can be accessed by employees and used by number crunchers to see what you have purchased, how often you purchase certain things and how much you are spending per trip. That might not seem like a big deal but it is, especially if you are like me and think everything is a conspiracy.
Imagine if you will; you are at the grocery store and are waiting in line. Someone in front of you is buying a basket full of things. Rope, permanent markers, vinegar, a few candy bars and a box of trash bags. They don’t have a reward card so they ask if they can use yours. If you are getting points for dollars spent, that is an easy way to “up your level” A few weeks later there is a knock at your door and the police want to know what you did with those trash bags that turned up at the scene of a crime and the permanent markers that were used to write a ransom note. Starting to see why reward cards can be a dangerous dealing?
Consumers have two options; don’t shop at stores that strong-arm you into getting a rewards card for savings or give out the minimum amount of information needed to obtain one. More and more people are refusing to sign up for cards because they feel it is an invasion of privacy; they would rather borrow someone else’s card or lose out on saving a few dollars in order to protect their information. There are only a handful of stores in my area that don’t have reward cards; they are extremely vocal in their advertisements of offering the lowest possible prices, “no card needed“.
If you are going to sign up for a loyalty card, read the fine print. See exactly who is going to have access to your information and how it is going to be used. In most cases it is used by companies to see what brands are hot in certain areas, how much a family spends, if coupons are used and what percentage of products are paid for with state funding [welfare, food stamps or WIC]. This might not sound like it would do a single store much good but when it is compared to others and on a national scale, it allows the corporate offices to fine tune prices, products offered and target demographics.
Privacy is something that you can’t put a price on so think twice before you freely give up your information. If you do have reward or loyalty cards be sure to check the store website for updates or changes in how they are protecting your data. Write down your card numbers and the toll free customer service numbers in case your cards or key fobs are stolen or misplaced, especially if they are linked to your checking account or other store perks (video rentals, check cashing, pharmacy rewards etc).