On Your Side Alert: Should you tell stores your ZIP Code?

Published: May. 20, 2013 at 3:40 PM EDT|Updated: May. 20, 2013 at 11:15 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Chances are you've been asked for your ZIP Code when you're out shopping. But what is that information used for? Consumer Advocates say you may not want to be so quick to give out the digits.

You probably use it without much thought but the ZIP Code is more than just a five digit number. University of Richmond Law Professor, Jim Gibson says contained in that number is a lot of personal information. "If someone knows your name and your ZIP code, they can find out a heck of a lot about you," Gibson says.

Many stores ask for the information and use it for future advertising or to send you direct mail. In some states, it's a violation of privacy laws for stores to request your ZIP code when buying something with a credit card. "It's not Zip codes per se, it is the notion that each little data point that they can gather about a consumer allows them to learn more about you than you might actually know," Gibson explains.

In Virginia, it's perfectly legal for a store to request your ZIP code but remember, just because they ask, doesn't mean you have to give it to them. You are your best privacy advocate. "Take a little information from the public record, a little information maybe from commercial transactions, where you haven't protected your privacy and they can put it together into a pretty accurate profile of who you are, what you like to purchase and so on," he says.

One of the most common places you're ask for your ZIP code is at the gas pump. Here, the rules are a bit different. That information is used to prevent fraud and does not go into a store's data base but to your credit card company for verification. Professor Gibson says when it comes to sharing ZIP codes, the level of concern and protection depends on the consumer. It's really a personal judgment how big of a deal it is. Folks who have no problem with getting junk mail or sharing information with merchants and trust the merchant, shouldn't worry much. Folks who are more private and don't want big companies knowing that much about purchasing habits, should be their own advocates and say no," Gibson tells us. When in doubt, if someone ask for your ZIP code, ask why. Keep in mind some websites will also request your ZIP code for security purposes.

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