Your customer data isn’t safe, but here’s how to protect it

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By Christopher Elliott

Would it surprise you if I said consumers don’t believe the personal and financial data they submit to corporations is safe?

No? Well, don’t take my word for it. A recent survey found that 72 percent of consumers don’t believe companies take care of their data.

The research, commissioned by the cloud security company HyTrust, suggested people have good reason to worry, with the likes of Target, Neiman-Marcus, Michaels Stores, Adobe and White Lodging facing recent data breach issues.

Eric Chiu, the co-founder and president of HyTrust, called the level of distrust “breathtaking.”

“Many organizations maintain that they’re doing everything they can to protect private customer information, but the public at large believes otherwise,” he says.

Want to know what else is breathtaking? I’ll bet that if I polled companies right now and asked them if their customers care that the personal and financial data they submit to them is safe, they’d get a similar result. Customers don’t think their data is that important — unless, maybe, it falls into the wrong hands.

If it were otherwise, then the United States would have tougher data privacy laws. In Europe and Canada, for example, companies can’t indiscriminately share your information with a third party and they’re required to disclose to you the type of information they collect.

Here are three ways you can ensure your data stays safe even if the law won’t protect it. (Here’s why credit reporting agencies are the most complained about financial institutions.)

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Review the company’s privacy policy

Most consumers don’t bother to read a company’s data. If you did, you might find that companies give themselves a broad license to use your information any way they want. For example, Target’s policy allows it to share your data with a third party for marketing purposes. In order to opt out, you have to call the company. Here’s the thing: while I have few doubts that Target has learned its lesson after the recent data breach, can we be sure its marketing partners have? (By the way, if you’re wondering what a policy is worth, the answer is “a lot.” The Federal Trade Commission can force a company to honor the terms in its policy, as wishy-washy as they may be.)

Mind those pre-checked boxes

Whenever you make a purchase, particularly online, look out for those opt-ins. Many businesses will pre-check the box at the bottom of a page for your “convenience.” (Don’t they mean, for their convenience?) Unless you uncheck it, you’ll probably be agreeing to receive their catalog, share your data with anyone who wants it, or sign you up for an email newsletter. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problem.)

Withhold your data

Perhaps the most effective way to protect your own data is to not give it to a company. Yes, they’ll scream — they’ll claim that withholding your address or email will not allow them to “provide excellent customer service.” But ask yourself: when’s the last time you received “excellent” service because a company knew your email address? When’s the last time you received “excellent” service, for that matter? Take baby steps. The next time you’re at a department store and someone asks for your phone number, say “no.” Maybe they’ll claim they need it to finish the transaction, but that’s nonsense. Maybe they’ll say the number is being used for research purposes only, and that your number won’t be added to a list. Don’t believe them. If you’re tired of receiving unsolicited phone calls at dinnertime, you know you have to stop giving your phone number out to strangers, don’t you? (Related: When you check in, your privacy may check out.)

Here’s the bottom line: If you want to protect your data, it needs to start with you. Sure, companies are responsible for safeguarding your personal information. Too many don’t. But ultimately, you control who gets that data, and if you’re not happy with the way corporations handle the information, you can — and you should — cut them off.

Do you trust companies with your data?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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