What Can Thieves Find Using Your Zip Code?

Friends and Money

I knew very little about her personal life until an online search helped me discover much more about her in less than an hour.

In the late 90s, Jenna graduated from High School in Massachusetts and eight years later she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in legal studies from a leading Catholic University, which came with at least two honors. The 29-year-old lives in the Harlem section of Manhattan.

For eight years, she worked at a bankruptcy law office with branches in seven locations. I assume she's a thrill seeker because nearly four years ago Jenna, whose e-mail address I found while digging around, also took a skydiving class. The names of her siblings and her parents were all at my fingertips.

Of all the things I learned about Jenna I only knew two before I started this Internet search -- her name and ZIP code.

"The information is pretty basic but it's crazy that it came up for free," wrote Jenna. Other than a misplaced letter attached to a sibling's name, all of the information, including her mother's name, was accurate.

It's this information that consumers against the disclosure of ZIP codes attached to full names are attempting to keep merchants from easily piecing together. Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that requesting postal codes during most credit card transactions violated the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act, a 1971 California law that prohibits businesses from requesting that cardholders provide "personal identification information."

Disclosing ZIP codes allows "people [to] track their purchases. It creates a profile and that information can be shared with other companies and that's dangerous to have that information in one area," says lawyer Gene J. Stonebarger, whose lawsuit triggered the ruling.

The ruling in the Jessica Pineda vs. Williams-Sonoma case has paved the way for numerous lawsuits against major retailers like Wal-Mart, Tiffany & Co., Crate & Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target Corp., and Macy's Inc. as many consumers question what information retails do have access to.

"Williams-Sonoma preys on its credit card customers who are accustomed to providing their ZIP codes for legitimate verification purposes at gas stations during 'pay at pump' transactions and mistakenly assume that Williams-Sonoma is requesting their ZIP codes to process their credit cards. But, in reality Williams Sonoma's sole purpose for requesting their zip codes is to covertly obtain its customers' home addresses for its own business purposes, including to build a marketing database," Stonebarger wrote in a petition.

Consumers may provide their ZIP codes at the register "because they believe it's required for the transaction," he says. "They're not using it for credit card transactions. The retailer takes that info and uses reverse databases to obtain the individual addresses for things such as marketing or to track spending habits."

A common name doesn't make you less hard to find. "There may be 100 people that share a same name but often there's only one person with that e-mail address or phone number," says Stonebarger.

There's much more data about you to be mined. People increasingly post their personal bits for the world to see on social media sites. The blathering on Twitter, the resume on LinkedIn and the biography on Facebook has made most people easier to find than Carmen San Diego.

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