Protect your zip code from retailers

Posted: 8:00 PM EDT Mar 22, 2013   Updated: 7:01 PM EDT Mar 23, 2013

It's always the same drill at the cash register, a quick swipe, a signature and the contents of the shopping cart are yours.  But when the cashier asks for your zip code it's not always necessary to complete the transaction.  In-fact It may seem like a harmless piece of information to hand out, but that five digit number can result in more junk mail headed your way and more telemarketers disrupting your day.


"The real danger here is that you may be subjecting yourself to being put on lists of things that you never had any intention of doing," explained Regional Vice President of the Better Business Bureau Andrew Goode.


He says your zip code can easily lead merchants to your phone number, email and home address.  And you can say no.


"Unless it's absolutely needed for the sale, there's no reason to give it."


Some stores gather zip codes for harmless reasons like trying to figure out where to open a new location based on customers, but the overall trend is for companies to use the data to find out more about you and market directly to you.  They can even sell your profile to a data broker.  Massachusetts and California courts have ruled the practice violates state privacy laws.


"It depends on how much you value your privacy and how much you value not receiving a lot of junk mail, phone calls from companies that are selling you things," added Goode.


Merchant trade associations counter that collecting such data is beneficial to consumers.  The National Retail Federation tells 69 News in part, "Asking for generic information helps retailers tailor merchandise, customize advertising and marketing and individual services. The information helps retailers know where their customers are located, and where retailers should focus their outreach and operations."   


"People should always be careful with their privacy," shared Goode.  "Know what you feel comfortable with and never act outside their comfort level."


Some transactions do require you to give a zip code, but you can always ask before you give the number out.