Day 6

Credit score 'on steroids': How your secret consumer score could be used against you

Data analytics firms are tracking consumers' transactions — from food orders to clothes returns — and assigning buyers a numerical value. That hidden score could determine the kind of service consumers receive from retailers to insurance companies, says Laura Antonini.

People with better scores may get better customer service, says Laura Antonini

Shoppers in London carry their purchases in orange shopping bags on Nov. 7, 2019. With help from Laura Antonini, policy director at the Consumer Education Foundation in California, we break down what a consumer score is and how it could impact your future purchases. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen8:19

It's Friday night. You've just clocked another gruelling week at the office. You're exhausted and hungry, so you pull up your favourite food delivery app and click "order" on that mouth-watering dish of pad thai.

Or maybe you've started your holiday shopping early, but with a bit more thinking, realize your sister would prefer that knit sweater over the new slippers you already bought her. So you take them back to the store and return them.

But have you ever wondered what happens to the data connected to your everyday purchases and transactions, or what they might mean for you in the future?

As it turns out, there are companies out there gathering private information about you to assign you a consumer score based on your "predicted behaviour," said Laura Antonini, a policy director at the Consumer Education Foundation in California.

Antonini prefers to call them "secret surveillance scores," and they can mean honest consumers are blacklisted from returning unwanted items at stores, or charged higher prices than others.

Day 6 spoke to Antonini to put together a guide on consumer scores, and what they mean for you.

What is a consumer score or surveillance score?

Some companies, which Antonini refers to as data analytics firms, use algorithms to analyze consumers' private information and lump them into categories based on their activities, she said. 

That data might include IP addresses, or mark when you logged into a social networking site or ordered food.

Antonini requested her consumer information from several companies and received 250 pages of "mostly incoherent" records in return, including information from several years ago.

"There was data like whether my phone was plugged in when I ordered chicken kebabs," she said.

Another part of the data showed that she returned something worth $78 to Victoria's Secret in 2009, although Antonini doesn't remembers doing so.

"My data trail has a better memory than me," she said.

An Uber Eats food courier rides through Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 3. Antonini says when she requested a copy of the consumer information being kept on her, she found companies had tracked when she ordered food, and even whether her phone was plugged in at that time. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Why would a company want your score, anyway?

According to Antonini, companies claim that information about your consumer habits are important for fraud detection.

Antonini understands how tracking the number of returns a person makes could help pinpoint illegal activity.

"In theory, it's legitimate," she said. However, she questions why companies need to know whether or not her phone was plugged in at a certain time, or what her location was over the last decade's worth of transactions.

"It's creepy," said Antonini, adding there is little transparency about the practice.

"And these companies have not come out and … explained why they need this data, how it helps them determine who the fraudsters are."

How can your score affect your everyday life?

Unfortunately, consumer scores can make life more difficult for honest people.

That's because third-party companies that collect your consumer data are turning around and selling it back to retailers for their fraud scoring systems, said Antonini.

In 2018, a Best Buy customer was banned from making returns, according to the Wall Street Journal, after trying to bring back a few phone cases the person claimed were unused gifts for his sons.

Antonini said auto insurance companies in California had a similar practice in the 1980s, in which they calculated rates based on where customers lived.

A manager hands out sales flyers to shoppers outside a Best Buy store in Chicago on Nov. 22, 2018 — Black Friday. Consumer scores have made life more difficult for some people who shop at the electronics store, says Antonini. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

"It's called redlining," she said. "It's a veiled form of discrimination and, you know, if they're collecting location data or other data that serves as a surrogate for race, income, gender, there could be discrimination going on."

Other companies use consumer data to calculate how valuable a person is to them — or how much profit they might bring in. That information is then used to charge certain customers higher prices, or give people with better scores better customer service, said Antonini.

"Secret surveillance scores are like credit scores, but on steroids," she said. "They judge everything about you, and not just your credit-worthiness."

So what can consumers do about their information being tracked?

For people like Antonini, who live in California, privacy laws give people the power to ask companies for the data being collected about them. 

"But what do I do with it?" she said.

Some people argue that moving back to a cash-based society could stop companies from keeping tabs on our spending habits, Antonini said, but she's not sure that's realistic.

"If you're shopping online, you should assume that that is going to go into your profile," she said.

But when people learn their data is being used to make decisions, judgments and scores about them, "I think people might ... think twice."


Click 'Listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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