Your ZIP code is your business

Most store clerks who ask for your ZIP code aren't concerned with security. They want to use it to sell you more stuff.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 4, 2013 3:12PM

This post comes from MSN Money contributor Mitch Lipka.


Teenage girl buying clothes at till, close-up © Lisa Stirling, Digital Vision, Getty ImagesHow many times have you gone to a store and had the clerk ask for your ZIP code? Most consumers probably assume the question has something to do with using a credit card.


But it usually doesn't. You're just as likely to get asked the question if you pay with cash. It's about marketing -- collecting information about you and your purchases to sell you more things because adding your ZIP code to other information on file can help add to data being collected about you and your shopping habits.


You can just say no when asked, and privacy experts say you should.


The issue resurfaced last month when Massachusetts' top court ruled that stores in that state may not ask customers for their ZIP codes, which is considered to be "personal identifying information."


And the talk about being asked for your ZIP code got another nudge this week from The New York Times, which asked and answered the question about why stores ask for this information.


While there can be a chance you're being asked the question for some security reason (the Times noted that American Express offers merchants the choice of using a ZIP code to help prevent fraud), most times a consumer is asked, it’s the retailer packaging up details about you. That information either can be sold to data brokers or marketing companies or used by the stores themselves for their own marketing purposes as well as to help make decisions about where they might want to open new locations, for instance.


(It's different, by the way, when you're asked at a gas pump; that is for security reasons.)


Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse said while some reasons for being asked -- such as determining the location of a new store -- are mostly benign, many of the ways the ZIP code can be combined with other information about you can be quite invasive.


"A ZIP code coupled with a customer name can be shared with a data broker to obtain a great deal of information, such as the customer’s home address, phone number, email address, lifestyle, and spending habits," he said. "The retailer might then send the customer junk mail, engage in telemarketing, sell the information to other businesses and marketing companies, or share the information with members of a data cooperative."


If consumers want to protect their privacy, they shouldn't provide the ZIP code, Stephens said.


More from MSN Money: 


Apr 4, 2013 7:40PM

They usually ask for my phone number and my husband refuses. Junk mail goes in trash or thru shredder, emails get deleted. Phones do not get answered if I don't know the number.


Apr 4, 2013 8:12PM

They used to ask for our addresses...but when we refused to answer, they settled for zip codes instead. Thanks to you, they will no longer even get that.


But if a clerk STILL asks for your address, you can simply tell him to give you HIS, first.

Apr 5, 2013 8:56AM
Radio Shack was one of the first  to use this irritating tactic- they would insist on your full address before they would ring up your 1.98 purchase-  I used to give them the address of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.- not one of the clerks ever caught on. ( come to think of it, maybe all those Radio Shack catalogs arriving at the White House may have prompted Richard Nixon to buy that pesky tape recorder) Now when stores ask for phone number or zip code, I just make up random numbers.  One of the worst is the American Girls doll company- they ask for address and BIRTH DATE!  not just the year, but the exact date.  
Apr 5, 2013 9:34AM

While working on a gardening project I made many visits to Lowes for edging blocks.  Always got checked out by the same, highly attractive, gal.  Everytime she'd ask for my phone number.  I never gave it, of course.  Finally I told her I'd give her the number is SHE wanted it, but not if the store wanted it.  She never asked again!

Apr 4, 2013 7:14PM
They send me junk in the mail, it goes in the trash.  Send me e-mails, deleted.  No big deal.
Apr 5, 2013 12:00PM

Usually I give the zip code of the store. If I don't know the zip code of the store, I always say "Whatever the zip code here is". After all, that's my zip code at that moment.

Apr 5, 2013 10:57AM

Gas stations ask for you to enter a zipcode. Is this for marketing or to verify the combination of use of credit card and customer being US or local.


Does anyone know?

Apr 5, 2013 12:17PM
I'm confused as to how a zip code could be a security breach?  They wouldn't know my name.
Apr 5, 2013 11:29AM
This article is nonsense.  Swiping your card doesn't give the store your address or email, so it would be useless from a marketing standpoint.  The zip-code capture is used to determine the distance consumers traveled to shop in the store.  They use this information to determine if, when and where a new store should be opened to alleviate or generate business.  This is like first year information in a business program.  The author should be fired.

"A ZIP code coupled with a customer name can be shared with a data broker to obtain a great deal of information, such as the customer’s home address, phone number, email address, lifestyle, and spending habits"

Okay, show me Best Buy's invoice for the services of one of these data brokers.  Show me the money in their budget.  When was the last time you got non-circular mail from Best Buy without signing up for their Rewards or Credit Card programs?  That's right.  You haven't.  What garbage reporting, but this is typical today.
Apr 8, 2013 3:39PM
How can it be a marketing ploy? They do not get your address!

In my business, this is a security measure ONLY if your card will not scan, or phone order (which has to be shipped anyway!!)

I assume it is the similar at gas pumps. If someone steals your card, they cannot fill up if they cannot enter your billing zip code. 
Apr 5, 2013 10:59AM
So what are you supposed to do when asked for ID when using a credit card which presumably has your complete address AND zip code?
Apr 5, 2013 1:01PM

Individually, your zipcode means nothing to a marketer.  Collectively it means quite a bit.  Consumer buying habits are more precise when they are based on income levels than say race, religion or ethnicities.  And what better way to collectively determine income level than zipcode?


You don't put an upscale grocery store in low income area nor do you put Army recruiters in upscale neighborhoods.  You use zipcode marketing to determine product placement.

Apr 5, 2013 12:19PM

When we take a phone order or for some reason have to key in the CC # manually, our bank asks us to note either the zip code or the address number as well as the security code.  Without this information, we are charged a higher rate on our CC fees.  Has nothing to do with marketing.

Apr 5, 2013 11:21AM

We should be more concerned about the intrusiveness of government rather than the commercial efforts of the private sector. 

Apr 4, 2013 7:36PM

"A ZIP code coupled with a customer name can be shared with a data broker to obtain a great deal of information..."


And the "threats" cited are junk mail and phone calls? If that's all, why an article? If there's more, why downplay the "threat."

Poor writing at best.

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