Zip Codes and Data Privacy: Why You Shouldn’t Share

We’ve all been there. You’re standing at the checkout counter and the sales associate asks the seemingly innocent question, “May I have your zip code please?” Few of us ask why retailers need a zip code to complete a transaction, but we supply it anyway when we’re buying clothes, home improvement supplies, or any other mainstream products. According to CNN Money, we’re giving away much more than a five-digit geographic location.

Retailers use zip codes to determine demographics, allowing them to target advertising efforts and deliver coupons based on the geographic location of their customers. While their reasoning seems benign, privacy experts insist that dangers exist if your information falls into the wrong hands. Read on to learn why you should think twice before giving out your zip code.

  • The principle.

Unsolicited mail is, among other things, downright annoying. After receiving 14 L.L. Bean catalogs you didn’t ask for, you are forced to go online or call an 800 number to say “Thanks, but no thanks, my khaki needs have been met.” And why were you forced to do this? Because you once bought your outdoorsy cousin an L.L. Bean gift card for Christmas. Receiving multiple catalogs isn’t the end of the world (maybe you need khakis…), but consider saying no to the zip code question if you want to avoid opting out of retail mailing lists.

  • The security concerns.

Providing your zip code allows you to be tracked by retailers and data brokerage firms like Acxion, Datalogix, and CoreLogic. These companies store more than your zip code; they house databases filled with personal info, including your full name, address, income level, marital status, education level, and more. Does this collection of information sound familiar? If so, you’re probably thinking, “These are questions asked on a credit card application,” and you’d be right. Much of the data brokers’ information is needed when applying for new credit to positively identify you. If the databases are hacked, it wouldn’t take long for a professional to fill in the missing gaps in your profile and effectively steal your identity. The worst part? Since your information exists in an external database, there is no way for you to recognize the security breach until it’s too late. In this light, providing your zip code doesn’t seem so benign after all. The repercussions of identity theft can lead to stolen cash, false records, and years of credit repair problems. Why compromise your financial security by adding more info to these databases? Make security your top priority.

  • The law.

In March, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that retailers cannot ask customers for their zip codes because it qualifies as personal information protected under privacy laws. While the practice may not be prohibited in your state (yet), you certainly aren’t required to provide your zip code at the checkout counter. If a simple “no thanks” won’t suffice, ask to speak to the manager and reiterate your point.

The bottom line: No one has the right to poach your information. Stop the cycle before it starts: keep your zip code private. Protecting yourself is more valuable than a coupon in the mail.