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When to keep the truth to yourself

Marketers want to mind too much of your business.

By Karen Datko Sep 28, 2009 5:57PM

This guest post comes from "vh" at Funny about Money.


Why, when we're confronted, do we tend to blurt out the truth, even when it works to our disadvantage to do so? Chaucer had it right when he said that "truth is the highest thing that Man may keep." Sometimes we should keep it to ourselves.


Asked in the right way, we'll often reveal private, sensitive information that's strictly none of anyone's business, that's valuable to people trying to manipulate us into buying products and services, and that can be used to pester or even harass us. Warranty cards with long lists of personal questions are especially egregious: What about your favorite sporting event and the magazines you read is needed to guarantee a flashlight's performance? And how often do you give your phone number to companies that have no need to know it?


When my mother was young, back in the Early Pleistocene, she worked for the telephone company. Long-distance phone tolls were a pricey, moneymaking item, and people would try all sorts of scams to rip off a free call, ranging from disallowing calls they actually made to charging calls to someone else's phone number. My mother's job was to investigate claims of fraudulent charges. To get started, she would telephone the number that a customer said didn't belong on a bill. When someone picked up the receiver, she would say she was calling from Pacific Bell and then quickly ask who called that number on thus-and-such a day at thus-and-such a time.


Incredibly, she said, about 90% of people would blurt out the truth. When you're asked a question you don't expect, point-blank, you're likely to answer accurately even if the answer works against you.


In a general way, ethical people tell the truth. On the other hand, those who commit petty larcenies like stealing from the phone company are not ethical -- and so why should they, by impulse, speak truthfully? It's a deep-seated instinct, one that in the marketplace is too often used against us. Information we share for no other reason than that some stranger asks us is routinely sold to other merchandisers.


The other day when I went to get a flu shot at a grocery store clinic, I was asked (among other things) for my e-mail address and telephone number. I left the e-mail address blank, figuring that if they pressed me I'd say I don't have a computer or give them my junk gmail address. But under the mild stress of having to get a shot (I really do dislike injections of all kinds), I completely spaced the fake phone number I normally use in some circumstances. Well, actually, it occurred to me that if something was wrong with the vaccine they might need to call, so gave my office number.


I immediately regretted it. An exception to the national Do Not Call law allows companies that you do business with and all their subsidiaries to pester you with phone solicitation. So now I can expect nuisance phone calls not only from Dr. Mollen's health care enterprise, but from any other company even vaguely related to it.


OK, I'm not advocating that we should routinely lie. However, I think when marketers try to extract private information for which they have no use other than to sell it or to sell something to you, you're well within your rights to refuse to share it. And when pressed, to respond with disinformation.


For example, I have a phony telephone number printed on my checks. No law says you have to tell a merchandiser the truth, nor is there any need for a retailer to have your phone number for no other reason than that you paid for a product with a check. If the check bounces, the bank will come after you.


Similarly, my Safeway club card bears my dog's name and the telephone number of Safeway's corporate offices.


Some retailers will themselves lie when you ask not to have a phone number used for solicitation. The first time I bought an appliance at Sears, the salesman asked for my number so the installer could call to make an appointment. I specifically stated that I did not wish to receive sales calls, and he specifically stated that my number would not be used for phone solicitation. He said he was entering a do-not-call note in the database. Within days, I was getting nuisance sales pitches from Sears. Requests that they take me off their list were ignored. It took weeks to get them to quit badgering me, and they did only after I complained to a state consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau.


Big Brother is watching you, but unlike Orwell's nightmare vision, he ain't the government. Big Brother is the corporate shadow government, the one that follows your every step on video cameras and keeps tabs on every magazine you subscribe to, every prescription you buy, how much you earn and where you earn it, and every deep breath you take.


You're well within your rights to protect your privacy. Remember, with the exception of some financial institutions, the courts, and the IRS, no law requires you to answer a nosy question.


Related reading at Funny about Money:

Published Sept. 25, 2009



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