Saturday, July 21, 2007

Can someone explain this to me?

Before Miles, I had one other significant relationship. My first partner and I met when we were 20, had a big fancy wedding at 26 and split up in a very bitter divorce at 30. That was 2002.

Since then, I have lived at three different addresses. My ex and I are no longer as bitter but we have very little contact and mainly know of one another's doings from another couple. I have Miles and my ex, who is a third-year medical resident in the Chicago area, has some guy who likes piercings and kilts. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

But, oddly, this week something weird started happening: I'm getting mail at this house for my ex-partner. It's not forwarded. It doesn't have my name anywhere near it. And, again, this is my third address since we broke up. My ex, in fact, has never had any reason to send me anything here, so I doubt he even knows my address.

Both pieces of mail so far were junk. One was some debt-consolidation service that referenced his medical-school loan debt (whew - dodged that bullet). The other offered him a low-interest credit card. I suspect, given this, that more is to come.

Could it really be that some junk-mail firm figured out that we were once involved -- although that's been over for nearly five years and was never legal in any way that would show up in the sorts of documents and services that such firms use to harvest information? It is true that if you Google his whole name, the fourth entry is a notice that appeared in 1999 in my university's alumni magazine announcing our wedding. But the first three entries aren't even him, they're other people -- other doctors, in fact -- with his whole name. And anyway, isn't that a lot of steps for them to take to put his name to my address?

Baffling, no? Anyone have any vague explanation? Or any way to stop it now that it's started?


Ray said...

The is the byproduct of an overly aggressive merging of direct marketing databases. What happens is that sometimes aggressive marketers (credit card companies and student loan consolidators are among the worst) will try mailing to somebody and will get that mail returned, so they'll scour the national Change of Address database and try to match "household" rather than name. If you've filed a permanent change of address form with the post office, that goes into a central database for mailers and direct marketers. They can query the database looking for your ex, and if he's subsequently moved without a new permanent forwarding address, they can go back in time and say "who else was living at that same place at the same time, and do we know where *they* went?"... under the theory that maybe the whole "household" moved, even if they don't have records on each individual therein.

Unfortunately, this kind of practice is frowned upon from a security perspective and gets dangerous in this age of rampant identity theft. For example, a former "household" member might have just enough personal info about the recipient of the credit card offer to fake an application in their name and then go on a spending spree in their name.

There are several ways to try to fix this. First, scratch out the recipient address and any barcodes on the envelope, and write "Recipient Unknown - Return to Sender" on the envelope and give it back to your mail carrier. Second, tell your ex to call 888-5-OPTOUT and request that prescreened credit offers not be sent to him any more. You can do this yourself too, and it'll dramatically reduce your credit offer related junk mail.

Finally, NEVER FILE A PERMANENT CHANGE OF ADDRESS FORM. When you move, mark your move as temporary (which will last for 6 months... if you need longer, refile for another temporary for 6 more months). This will prevent your info from going into the NCOA (National Change of Address) database. During the 6 months of forwarding, call or write each person you want to still hear from and give them your new address. At the end of the period, you'll only have the mail you want, the junk mail will not follow you (unless you requested it to), and it'll take months or years for the direct marketers catch up with you.

I talk alot about this stuff in my book Internet Privacy for Dummies. Steve, I'll bring you a signed copy next time I'm in Vegas, but you have to sign my new copy of Gay Vegas. Deal? ;)

TheStripPodcast.Com said...

Ray -

WOW - that's a ton of terrific information. Thanks so much for sharing it. And you've got a deal on the book exchange for sure. When will you be back in LV?

Ray said...

I'll shoot you an email with our dates and stuff. Hopefully you'll be around! :)

JimInTx said...

I get junk e-mail for my sister. Ray's explanation is great for your situation, but I'd like to know how my e-mail address would be connected to her.

Ray said...

Email addresses are increasingly a part of the data that the big marketing database companies collect. And through a process called "appending" they will attempt to attach email addresses to postal addresses. The reason? Email is vastly cheaper and has a higher "return on investment" than sending postal mail, so if they can send you an offer via email instead of sending you a catalog, it's worth it for them to try. Unfortunately most appending results in really bad results, such as you getting emails addressed to your sister. How such mismatches happen depends on the quirks of how they try to do the appending.

How do they get your email address? From websites that you sign up for, online retailers you do business with, product warranty cards that you might fill out and send in, etc. Lots of ways they get you in their databases... and unfortunately it's hard to get yourself back out.