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MasterCard Tracks, Sells Customer Credit Card Purchases


Seems as thought MasterCard has a lot of secrets these days. It’s refusing to reveal its proprietary methods of tracking its customers online, only to sell the information it collects to third parties. Those third parties then bombard the customers with ads that match their search habits. And now, folks are furious. And guess what? You, as a consumer, have no say in whether you’re tracked or not.

Isolating Segment

Apparently this has been going on for quite some time. The credit card network processes close to 35 billion transactions every year in more than 200 countries. It says it’s been tracking and selling this information since earlier this year. Turns out, it’s quite proud of its efforts, too. It says it can not only isolate its wealthiest customers, but it can also tell these third parties what those wealthy customers are buying, browsing or surfing online. It insists, however, that it doesn’t sell any kind of personal or identifiable information, which sounds suspicious – how can you target a search result? Now, one privacy group is crying foul and saying it wants the company to stop “treating details of our personal behavior like their own property”.

The foundation of all of our solutions is transaction data,

Susan Grossman, senior vice president at MasterCard Advisors Media Solutions Group said in a presentation that’s not been made public (though it’s been leaked and at press time is easily found by Googling it). When a MasterCard is used, the information collected via the swipe in traditional brick and mortar businesses or when the numbers are keyed for online purchases, MasterCard’s data-packaging division receives a wealth of information about that consumer, including how much was spent, the date and time of the transaction as well as information about the merchant or servicer.

The worst part is the company tracks billions of transactions. It then takes that information, sorts it into different packages and then sells it to these third parties. The goal, of course, is to capitalize on the very “specific segments of data’ it’s able to separate. One problem – and there are many – is that no one really knows for sure what happens to that information after it leaves MasterCard. Is it re-sold yet again? If so, to whom? What kind of precautions are really in place to protect identities MasterCard says it incorporates?

And get ready, the new campaign is called ‘Leveraging MasterCard Data Insights to Reach Holiday Shoppers’. And the campaign is designed to attract advertisers using your information and habits, all the while insisting the data does not contain names or addresses. Your MasterCard purchases will be tracked during the holiday season – which means you might begin to see strangely accurate advertisements that magically hone in on what you’re shopping for during the holidays.

The presentation highlights very specific audiences that advertisers are trying to hone in on. For instance, holiday travelers could be singled out as well as last minute shoppers, Black Friday or Cyber Monday shoppers and even those that use search strings like “50% off” or “free shipping offers”. Of course, it’s not limited to the holiday seasons, it’s just a new and more aggressive campaign is being used for those purposes. It also continues to refuse to reveal any of its methods or justifications and say the formulas are proprietary.

Consumers Trust Us

The presentation also includes Grossman saying,

We recognize that consumers entrust us with their information so it is of the utmost importance that we ensure no individual or personally identifiable information is used in our media solutions product.

She did say, however, that most of the companies buying the information is banks, though some are doubtful of that claim. The problems many consumer advocacy groups have include the inability to opt out of these tracking efforts and no consideration or fair warning provided before the program went into effect. One consumer advocate said:

If this data has value, then it should be up to MasterCard to ask customers for permission to use their information and offer consumers something in return.

Brazen Move

This is actually a brazen move for MasterCard. In recent weeks, the CFPB has levied massive fines against Discover, Bank One and American Express for things like deception and for tacking on extras like identity theft protection. While this is a different animal, there are many similarities, which is making many wonder why MasterCard is being so aggressive. CFPB issued a bulletin recently that addressed its goal to eliminate deception:

Credit card issuers market various “add-on” products to card users, including debt protection, identity theft protection, credit score tracking, and other products that are supplementary to the credit provided by the card itself. This bulletin outlines the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (“CFPB” or “the Bureau”) expectation that institutions under its supervision and their service providers offer such products in compliance with Federal consumer financial law. The CFPB will take all necessary steps to ensure that consumers are protected from deceptive sales and marketing practices, including those resulting from failures to adequately disclose important product terms and conditions, or other violations of Federal consumer financial law.

Remember, MasterCard, Visa, Discover and the other credit card networks earn a cut every time you use your credit card. These have also been under heat lately as merchants and the networks battle out in court. Now, though, MasterCard has mastered a plan that lets it continue to earn money off of your spending habits.

For now, this is being used in the U.S. alone. There’s another consideration, too: many are saying it’s entirely likely that other major credit card companies soon follow MasterCard, especially if it appears significant “do not track” efforts are not being pushed aggressively. For now, you can’t opt out of these tracking efforts.

How do you feel about this? Does it feel invasive or is just another reality we cope with in an increasingly technology-driven culture? Is this enough to cause you to abandon your MasterCard? Share your thoughts and stories with us – we want to hear how you feel about these types of decisions that affect you and your family.

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