The Secret Consumer Score Exists

The Secret Consumer Score Exists

What Is a Consumer Score?

Every day, analytics companies churn out hundreds of secret consumer scores, also known as customer lifetime value scores, secret surveillance scores, and e-scores. These scores describe your behavior and predict everything from how likely you are to get sick to whether you might commit fraud or cancel a subscription.

This data is then sold to marketers, employers, law enforcement agencies, landlords, wireless phone service providers, and financial institutions. The higher your score, the better service they’ll give you. For example, in the airline industry, a high customer score increases your chance of getting a seat upgrade.

Who Has a Consumer Score?

If you’re over 18 and have a bank account, ever bought an airline ticket, or made a non-cash purchase at a large retail store, you likely have a consumer score. Actually, scratch that — you probably have dozens, if not hundreds, of consumer scores.

These include the medication adherence score, the consumer profitability score, youth delinquency score, casino gaming propensity score, brand name medicine propensity score, and job security score, among others.

Although minors are not typically scored, household scores can take their interests and activities into account.

Can You Request Your Consumer Score?

In theory, yes. In 2019, inspired by the EU’s GDPR and the upcoming (at the time) California Consumer Privacy Act, the New York Times journalist Kashmir Hill requested her consumer score from Sift, a company that determines consumer trustworthiness.

The company sent her a 400-page long report, which included an excessive amount of private data.

Hill wrote, “Sift knew, for example, that I’d used my iPhone to order chicken tikka masala, vegetable samosas and garlic naan on a Saturday night in April three years ago. It knew I used my Apple laptop to sign into Coinbase in January 2017 to change my password. Sift knew about a nightmare Thanksgiving I had in California’s wine country, as captured in my messages to the Airbnb host of a rental called “Cloud 9.”

In her article, Hill provides instructions on how you can request your own dossier from Sift and other companies that score consumers.

So what's the problem?

Because consumer scores are unregulated, companies aren’t technically obliged to respond to your data requests (unless you live in California, in which case the California Consumer Privacy Act protects you).

In an article for Yahoo Finance, Ethan Wolff-Mann said he followed Hill’s strategy and emailed two data collection companies. Both companies responded by asking him to submit his ID, and one company asked him to send in a picture where he looks “surprised or shocked” (which he did). However, he hasn’t heard from them since.

Even if these companies send you the data they have on you, most of them won’t tell you how they analyzed it or what your consumer score is. Considering that your consumer score can affect your life in a major way, that’s a huge problem.

  • According to a 2019 report from the Consumer Education Foundation, organizations may use secret consumer scores “to charge some people higher prices for the same product than others, to provide some people with better customer services than others, to deny some consumers the right to purchase services or buy or return products while allowing others to do so and even to deny people housing and jobs.” 
  • Your score may also be inaccurate. A misleading consumer score could land you on a tenant blacklist even if you have a good credit score, according to the 2019 report. Yet faulty scores can’t be corrected if they’re hidden.

Is There Anything You Can Do?

Data for consumer scores can come from numerous different sources, including, but not limited to, retail purchases, data broker lists, and census tract data. Even if you stopped using the internet and lived cash-only, you still wouldn't be able to escape being rated by corporations.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t at least strive to protect your information. Make sure to opt-out of data broker sites (check out DeleteMe's guide on how to do that), be wary of the things you post on social media, and use a Masked Email address, phone number, and credit card whenever possible.

Tip: In 2018, Khadeeja Safdar of The Wall Street Journal interviewed data scientists who develop models for scoring consumers. The article does a great job explaining the various factors that may go into someone’s score and what a high score will get you across industries like apparel, cars, and phone service. A 2014 report by the World Privacy Forum goes into even greater detail.

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