Editorial: Financial Advice

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If you receive a credit card in the mail, shouldn't you at least have asked for it? That didn't happen for consumers with useless cards from the defunct Montgomery Ward. It seems that GE Capital owned Montgomery Ward's credit card portfolio, and it also manages Wal-Mart's. Therefore, company executives decided to send Wal-Mart cards to Montgomery Ward's cardholders but didn't ask them whether they even wanted one, according to a story in The Washington Post last week.

Big deal? "The big deal is that I'm tired of companies barging into my life uninvited," wrote Post columnist Michelle Singletary. "What GE and Wal-Mart did is another example of how companies share, swap and sell our personal data without regard to our wishes." GE Capital had every right to send the new credit cards because of its relationships with Montgomery Ward and Wal-Mart. But that's not the point. Ask the former Montgomery Ward credit cardholder whether he or she has even shopped at Wal-Mart and would like a new credit card. Think about the consumer's perception. Financial information is an especially touchy area, hence the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. But all marketers can look for more legislation down the pike.

As the July 1 enactment of Gramm-Leach-Bliley approaches, consumers are being inundated with mailings of privacy policies from banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions. The opt-out criteria required by the law doesn't go far enough for most privacy advocates, who say that the language is confusing and that most people won't even read them. This is true. Some of the policies are four-page statements inserted with monthly bills, while others are 12-page treatises being mailed separately. The New York Times delved into the language issue earlier this month and talked with Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who said the law does more for lawmakers than consumers. Too bad the only people who will wade through these privacy policies - and understand them - will be attorneys looking to make a buck from class-action lawsuits against companies that don't adhere to every letter of the law.

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