Protecting your privacy isn’t always as easy as withholding your phone number from the Radio Shack cashier. And the consequences of lost privacy can be greater than just a pile of junk mail. Just ask Beverly Dennis. The Ohio grandmother’s ordeal began with a customer questionnaire and ended with a sexually explicit letter from a convicted burglar and rapist in Texas who wanted to make her “desires and fantasies become a fulfilled reality.”
Exactly how it happened is a cautionary tale for any U.S. consumer. In 1994, as reported by Newsday, Dennis received a notice from Metromail that offered coupons and free samples to those who took the time to fill out an enclosed customer survey. It asked questions about magazines of interest, preferred products, income level, and marital status. Metromail uses such surveys to help keep its databases fresh—databases which contain information on more than 90 percent of America’s households. Dennis, who was just looking to save money at the grocery store, filled out the form and mailed it in.
But when Metromail received Dennis’ survey, and those of thousands of others, things took a turn. Instead of paying a reputable company to enter the information into Metromail’s databases, the direct-mail giant contacted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and got a deal on prison-labor data entry—a full one-third to one-half cheaper than commercial rates. Soon Dennis’ survey was in the hands of Hal Parfait, a convicted rapist and burglar serving time at the Wynne Unit state prison in Huntsville. Parfait used Dennis’ personal information to write her a lengthy and very graphic letter, offering to make her “sexual desires and fantasies become a fulfilled reality. If you are into sixty-nine, then I am definitely game.” Parfait also said that he wanted “to be there to rub in your Neutrogena” and perform other specific sex acts, and that while his wishes could “only be in letters at the moment; maybe later, I can get over to see you.”
Fortunately for Beverly Dennis, it hasn’t yet come to that. But Parfait is scheduled to be released in September 1998 at the latest, and he knows where she lives.
To some readers, the moral of the story may be: Don’t give away personal information to an unknown source. But it’s not always that easy to control. Often companies like Metromail get their information in more subtle ways. For example, says Evan Hendricks of the Privacy Times, it could begin with something as small as filling out a warranty card on a new stereo you have just purchased.
Upon receiving the card, the stereo company will promptly enter your information into their database. And even if it is careful about who types in the information, there is no guarantee that the information will stay there. The list is a commodity for the company, which can turn around and sell your name to any of scores of specialty magazines or companies that make products to complement your stereo. And these companies could turn around and sell it again. Each time a list is sold, the odds that someone like Parfait will get ahold of it increase geometrically.
Right now, Dennis is in the midst of a class-action suit against Metromail, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and others. Her complaint in the case makes it clear just how big the problem is. The Metromail survey wasn’t the only bit of information floating through inmates’ hands; according to the complaint, Metromail also used the Texas prison facilities to process data for Coca-Cola, R.J. Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Time-Life, L’Oreal, Days Inn, Six Flags—and Seventeen magazine.