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    CNN Money: What your zip code reveals about you

    CNN Money takes a look at what your zip code can tell marketers about your private habits:

    Every time you mindlessly give a sales clerk your zip code at checkout, you’re giving data companies and retailers the ability to track everything from your body type to your bad habits.

    That five-digit zip code is one of the key items data brokers use to link a wealth of public records to what you buy. They can figure out whether you’re getting married (or divorced), selling your home, smoke cigarettes, sending a kid off to college or about to have one.

    Such information is the cornerstone of a multi-billion dollar industry that enables retailers to target consumers with advertising and coupons. Yet, data privacy experts are concerned about the level at which consumers are being tracked without their knowledge — and what would happen if that data got into the wrong hands.

    Acxiom, one of the biggest data brokers in the business, claims to have a database that holds information — including one’s age, marital status, education level, political leanings, hobbies and income level — on 190 million individuals. Major competitors, like Datalogix and CoreLogic, tout similarly vast databases.

    In most cases, all that is needed to match the information these data brokers compile with what you buy is your full name — obtained when you swipe a credit card — and a zip code, according to data privacy experts. This allows them to figure out that you are the Sally Smith who lives in Butte, Mont., not the one who lives in Denver, for example. […]

    Once a retailer identifies you, it can track and analyze your spending behaviors and background in order to predict what you might buy next. In the data world, this is often called predictive analysis or predictive modeling. […]

    Some retailers sell this information back to the data brokers which then sell it to other companies — including retailers, banks, credit card issuers, airlines, hotels, auto manufacturers and even Facebook — in a seemingly never-ending cycle. […]

    Of course, you typically don’t have to give your zip code to a cashier. Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that zip codes are “personal” information under state consumer privacy laws, after Melissa Tyler sued craft store Michaels for using her zip code to find her and send store mailings. She had thought the zip code was required to complete her credit card transaction, according to the suit.

    Now retailers in the state can’t ask for your zip code for marketing purposes — joining California, which had a similar court case.

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