A long history of data breaches and other hacks means that, for most of us, our personal information is out there on the internet.
Still, it’s disconcerting and sometimes unnerving when a business knows your Social Security Number without you ever providing it to them.
Sometimes you can trace the origin and sometimes you can’t. Either way, it’s easy to feel slighted. Even if it’s a credit union that provided your personal information to that business.
Is it legal for Equifax or another credit bureau to do that?
Can a Credit Bureau Share My Social Security Number and Other Personal Information Without My Permission?
Can a credit bureau give out my Social Security Number, credit score and other personal information to a business without my permission?
That’s what a listener recently asked money expert Clark Howard.
Asked Clint in New York: “I received a promotional flyer in the mail from DISH TV. When I called DISH to confirm this exclusive offer, she asked … to confirm the last four digits of my Social Security number.
“When I asked how she obtained this information, I was told it was provided by Equifax and this offer was only available to customers with very high credit ratings.
“Clark, is this legal? How can Equifax be sharing my personal information with other companies without my permission? My wife and I have no business relationship with Equifax. I never did confirm the last four digits of my Social Security number.”
In fact, the law does allow the credit bureaus — including Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — to make money via your personal information. That’s their entire business model.
“Let me tell you the deal,” Clark says. “[The credit bureaus] build dossiers on you that they sell to companies over and over and over again.
“You didn’t give them permission to set up a dossier on you and to profit from your personal information and credit profile. The law permits [credit bureaus] to trade in your personal information and not compensate you for it.”
How would this work in practice? Equifax could approach DISH Network with a juicy pitch.
“‘Hey, how would you like some qualified leads of people with outstanding credit records?'” Clark says.
“And DISH is like, ‘Wow. So this is going to cost us $X per person who signs up. Yeah. We’ll do that. We’ll make that money back pretty quickly.’
“They know you’re an extremely low-risk customer. And they already have your personal information. They already know it all at DISH Network.”
Can You Prevent the Credit Bureaus From Profiting off Your Personal Information?
If you’ve listened to Clark for any period of time, you know freezing your credit is his first, strongest recommendation for anything related to protecting your credit from would-be thieves.
You may be surprised to learn that also stops credit bureaus such as Equifax from profiting off of your personal information.
“Right now you and I have no power under the law, no control under the law, unless you establish a credit freeze,” Clark says. “If you freeze your credit, it outlaws Equifax, TransUnion and Experian from selling off your information over and over and over again.
“And putting a credit freeze in place will also help protect you from many of the worst forms of identity theft.”
Clark agrees with Clint. It seems unfair that unless you freeze your credit, the credit bureaus can sell your personal information to businesses as much as they wish.
He has a creative solution that may be more equitable — but don’t hold your breath if you want it to become a reality.
“My belief has been forever that the marketplace solution is that if [credit bureaus] want to build these dossiers on you and profit from them, they should have to pay you a commission on the money they make every time they sell off your personal information,” Clark says.
Credit bureaus can sell your personal information, including your credit score and history, to businesses.
If you want to prevent that, you can freeze your credit. Otherwise, you don’t get any compensation and you have no control over those happenings.
But if you get an offer from a legitimate company such as DISH Network, and they tell you it’s because a specific credit union touted your credit profile, it’s safe to accept.