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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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They've Got You Targeted: the Process of Direct Marketing

How did the supermarket, the florist, and the dentist get Cindy Rowan's mother's name in the first place? Although it's impossible to know for sure, most likely it came from one of the companies that operate the National Change of Address Program for the government.

When you fill out a change of address card, the card is sent to a processing center where the information is typed into a computer and then transmitted to the nation's largest direct marketing firms. The firms are contractually prohibited from using the database for direct marketing purposes, says Wayne Orbke, an official at the U.S. Postal Service who once oversaw the program's contractors.[11] But the companies are allowed to use the data to update their own files—in fact, that is the purpose of the entire program. By allowing marketing firms to update their databanks directly, the post office saves the expense of carrying billions of letters to old addresses, only to forward them to new addresses.

But once the information is in the possession of the marketers, it is difficult to avoid the kind of abuse that the government's regulations are designed to prevent. Consider Metromail, a direct marketing firm with annual sales in excess of $250 million that was purchased by Experian in April 1998. Metromail was one of the National Change of Address Program's primary contractors. The company carefully monitors its mailing lists before and after it applies updates from ...

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