When a Retailer Asks, ‘Can I Have Your ZIP Code?’ Just Say No

Most of us have, at some point, been asked for our address, ZIP code, phone number or e-mail address while buying something. What's the deal with that?

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Urban Outfitters was hit with a lawsuit charging that the trendy clothing retailer tricked customers into providing their ZIP codes by leading them to believe the information was necessary to process credit-card transactions, when the company really just wanted the information so it could mail them ads. 

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., says customers started getting marketing materials from the company even though they’d never asked to be placed on a mailing list or given their full addresses. “Once the customer provides his/her ZIP code, the retailers have all the information they need to secretly obtain customers’ home/business address,” the suit says.

The suit sheds light on common but little understood data-collection practices by merchants. Most of us have, at some point, been asked for our address, ZIP code, phone number or e-mail address while buying something and wondered what the deal was. Here’s what you need to know.

(MORE: Big Data Knows What You’re Doing Right Now)

Why do stores want the information? To try to sell you stuff, for the most part. But in some cases, retailers want to know where their customers are coming from so they can figure out the best place to open a new store. “There are others that perform analytics on the information, which is what’s alleged in a lot of these cases,” says Aaron Simpson, a partner in the privacy and cybersecurity team at the law firm of Hunton & Williams LLP.

“It’s a question of transparency,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Scott Perry told Buzzfeed. Some stores are up-front about it and will ask you if you’d like to give them your information so you can get flyers or coupons. The problem comes when retailers don’t make that clear to shoppers.

They don’t need your whole address to find you, either, thanks to the growing sophistication of big data. A Forbes article last month highlighted some of these companies’ marketing claims. One says, “Users simply capture name from the credit-card swipe and request a customer’s ZIP code during the transaction,” which lets stores “identify customers easily with accuracy rates close to 100%” and send them “dynamic, personalized marketing.”

There’s also the more remote but more troubling possibility that stores collect this data in order to either sell it to a data warehouser, or buy additional data from one of those companies to create a more detailed profile of who you are, says Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times. “They want it because they want to start building a profile,” he says. “I think it’s true sometimes they just want to send you a promotional flyer, which isn’t a burning privacy issue … But the trouble is, once they get your information, there’s very few restrictions on what they do with it.”

Do you have to give it to them? Generally, no. But like many other consumer-privacy issues, laws pertaining to it are made at the state level, creating what Simpson calls a “patchwork.” In other words: it’s a mess.

In the following states, it’s illegal for a clerk to tell you they require personal information to run your credit card: California, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, plus Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere, a state might be running afoul of their merchant agreement with the card network, but they’re not breaking the law. For instance, MasterCard says, “A merchant cannot refuse to complete an in-store MasterCard transaction if the cardholder declines to provide this information to the checkout clerk.”

American Express lets stores call the shots, though. The company says, “It is the merchant’s discretion whether to process an American Express transaction if the cardmember refuses to provide his or her ZIP code.”

(MORE: Big Brother Is Watching You Swipe: The NSA’s Credit-Card Data Grab)

Are there any exceptions? If you swipe a card at a gas pump, you might get a prompt asking you for your ZIP code. This kind of transaction is generally exempt from laws about personal information, as are purchases that require delivery or installation, since the company needs to know where to send the package or technician.

When it comes to gas purchases, National Association of Convenience Stores spokesman Jeff Lenard says the ZIP code is a security measure. “Oftentimes, thieves test cards to see if they are still live at places where they don’t have to engage in a face-to-face transaction, such as at the gas pump,” he says. “Someone with a stolen card would be less likely to correctly enter the ZIP.”

66 comments
annmarie521
annmarie521

Lesson learned!   Wanted to ask this also.  Recently went to the store, "Hobby Lobby" and was told if I didn't write my "unlisted" cell phone number on the check, they wouldn't take the check.  Can they do this legally??

jfrykman
jfrykman

This is total nonsense. You can't send bulk mail without ZIP + 4 and a carrier route number! Most consumers don't even have that information. Sometimes the 5 digit zip code is an additional security measure for credit card holders, for instance at gas stations. In addition, there are software programs that can automatically generate a ZIP + 4 number for any address in the US. So you certainly don't have to ask a customer for it.

The only reason the 5 digit ZIP is requested is for market analytics. THEY CAN'T SEND FLYERS OUT IF THEY DON'T ALREADY HAVE YOUR ADDRESS. Clerks do not ask for addresses of customers unless they want something shipped to them, or to verify a credit card if the mag stripe doesn't read.

Who researches this BS?

MarkParry
MarkParry

I watched this with the California Youth Authority,

TonetteJSchaible
TonetteJSchaible


And what I have learned has blown my mind. While our parents always told us that you need a degree to get ... the reality has been flipped on its head in the last two decades. ... His boss was billing him out at $65 per hour, and the boss's time itself comes at $85. .... Hope to see you around here more often.== > w­w­w.B­a­y­9­3.C­o­m


bdwatkins2001
bdwatkins2001

Never cooperate with marketing strategy''s they want your privacy.

sbsigneur
sbsigneur

Haha. For at least the past 15 years, I've given retailers zip codes from other states than the one in which I'm asked, unless I actually wanted to receive mail from them. A few times I've had the salespeople get confused looks on their faces, then not enter the zip into the register. Clearly, they know what it's really for, and consumers should know as well, or at least THINK about why they are requested.

aldewacs
aldewacs

Another junk mail revenge story I heard about - and it made me smile a lot: guy receives junk mail for the Nth time (I believe it was from a credit card company) with self-addressed envelope.

He gets a cement block, wraps it in paper, and glues the address to the block.  In Canada, and probably the US, the post office is obligated to mail the stuff as received.  I guess there was an expensive bill received by the credit card company.  Miraculously, the mails stopped.

USE THE FORCE, little one.


aldewacs
aldewacs

Soo ... entering a zip code into a gas pump 'proves' that the user at least knows that zip code, making it more likely he is the real owner.  I get it.

As a Canadian visitor to the US, I do not have a zip code.  And it of course does not accept any format other than the US-5 digits.  Therefore any station that uses these pumps, doesn't get my business.  Bye-bye!

Thinks4Self
Thinks4Self

If you are receiving junk mail from stores that you don't want download the US Postal Service form 1500, fill it out and return it to the post office with the offending piece of mail. Form 1500 is used to block obscenities from being delivered to your mailbox. The key is you get to decided what is obscene and what isn't. I've used it on church mailings and insurance agents among others. Once they have been contacted they are not allowed to mail you ever again. Keep track of who you do this to because if they do mail you again you can complain and they will be fined and the kicker is you get the money from the fine.

jsmith01284
jsmith01284

I think the question is, who is not spying on us. hackers, NSA, retailers, your neighbors, your wife... everyone. Although, I would rather it be the retailers than hackers or NSA.

bellfleur11
bellfleur11

Emails in my in box that i don't recognize and it's a marketing email i don't open then , i just click and delete all i and irt's gone,   so simple, no sweat.. thanks for your article it helps.

WaltDittrich
WaltDittrich

This is SUCH not a big deal.
If you don't want to give your zip code, don't give it
(except at gas pumps, of course. But even then, you could go inside and they won't ask for it).
If a store won't sell you something without a zip code, then don't shop there. Or give a fake. This is SO meaningless...

Ugh! People worry about the smallest thing!

savioursrestoration
savioursrestoration

when they ask for my address, I always give 1600 pennsylvania ave, Washington, d.c.

Tim_GNO
Tim_GNO

Look the cashier in the eye, and say, "Same as yours."

AlexandraRue
AlexandraRue

Okay, now I'm reading about why gas stations ask for our zip codes, but the zip code I first gave them was for the city I actually live in, one digit off, on the other side of the river. How did the gas pump know it was wrong unless it was reading my credit card? Okay, I'll give gas pumps my correct zip code in the future, but that was the only gas pump out the dozens I've used in my life to ask for my zip code.  (AlexandraRue sounds real, right? It's a very creative version of my real name, very.)

AlexandraRue
AlexandraRue

I tried to give a fake zip code to a gas pump when i used a credit card and some how it knew I was lying. (If  it got my zip code off my credit card, why did it ask for my zip code again?) I tried a few more random but valid zip codes, and then said to heck with it, and drove to the next gas station. I never give out any correct information about myself anywhere unless I absolutely have to like to use my credit card on line or order a package delivery. For zip code only I use a zip code from a nearby big city. If I think they are just being nosy, but I have to give them something that sounds close to real, I give them my first name and my middle name, no last name, and give an address between two city blocks a miles or so from home. I'm sure the mail man there is annoyed, but it's not like I'm giving out his personal information. I have a junk email address (xxxjunk@xxxx.com) for  when I'm forced to register for someplace on line that I'll probably never visit again. My junk account then gets inundated with junk mail and I keep my personal email cleaner. I also keep a Facebook account in a creative version of my real name to use for nosy places that want to access my Facebook and/or friends. Jokes on them. Neither account lists any contacts or any other information.

Darryl_Edington
Darryl_Edington

Just give them any zip code. It's ok to lie in this circumstance. I recommend closing your twitter and facebook accounts. Watch what you search for and the websites you go to. They are tracking and recording everything so their master computer (bigbrother) can profile you.

msapozhn
msapozhn

I understand the problem of giving out my phone number, but zip code or email - who cares? If retailers want to send me promo materials or coupons they are welcome, but everything else goes straight into recycle or junk box.

destrusdominate
destrusdominate

I remember Best Buy always asking for my phone number. I told them I am not giving it. The employee then always informed me that the information was private and never shared with a 3rd party. I told them I still don't care, and am not giving it as it's unnecessary for me to buy this item. They then shut up and took my money. I've never been to a Best Buy in 3 years now, as I don't need them as much as they need me this day and age. Just an observation for you companies out there!

Joebob3
Joebob3

I always give them an imaginary zip ! when asked for my email , I told them that go ask their bosses if they gave me 90% discount of what i bough today then i'll give them my email address !!

I'm a professional in IT for 30+ yrs, i know how to throw them out of the loop ! I hope the consumers get smarter ! just don't be a sitting duck  and get abused by those advertisers, and  merchants


SJerzGirl
SJerzGirl

I always provide it. I never read the ads that come in the mail anyway. They all come the same day and immediately go into the recycle bucket. I've always figured it helps the store know the general makeup of their customer base. As for credit and debit cards, I always assumed that was a security check for potential theft, so it never bothered me either. Some things just aren't worth stressing over.

rdanielpl260
rdanielpl260

I am glad gas stations ask for my ZIP code. I learn some new information everyday. I had $162 compromised from my credit card out in Fort Worth Texas about 1200 miles away. Thankfully the bank reissued another one. Thanks to fraud alert.

bcmugger
bcmugger

Always say      9 0 2 1 0

KarenEss
KarenEss

I'm glad the gas station pumps require it. My   bank called and said someone tried to buy gas in Ohio - many, many, many hundreds of miles from where we live - turns out myATM card info had been "compromised" in that recent Raley's hacking.  No charges to me and the bank issued a new card instantly!

JackieNichols1
JackieNichols1

I don't mind giving my zip code.  I don't consider that terribly personal.  I will lie if they ask for my phone number.  What really used to irk me is when Radio Shack would require my full address even when making a cash purchase as little as $1.00 (do they still do that?  I haven't shopped there in years.).  I tried to decline once and was told that I had to give it to complete the purchase.  From that point on, I would always lie and give a fake address, but I wanted them to KNOW I was lying so I would say "123 Sesame Street, Big Bird, CA 12345".  Some clerks gave me dirty looks.  Other smiled and chuckled.  They all accepted it, though.

troyf
troyf

When using a non-cash method of paying, the merchant has access to your zipcode without you having to tell them what it is. Read the below again...

[When it comes to gas purchases, National Association of Convenience Stores spokesman Jeff Lenard says the ZIP code is a security measure. “Oftentimes, thieves test cards to see if they are still live at places where they don’t have to engage in a face-to-face transaction, such as at the gas pump,” he says. “Someone with a stolen card would be less likely to correctly enter the ZIP.”]

SmashCrasher
SmashCrasher

Big friggin' deal. Recycle the stupid snail mail and delete the stupid email.


SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

I give them the wrong zip code, easy enough.

DelmarKnudson
DelmarKnudson

When we get unwanted emails, why isn't there some way we can hurt the companies that send them?

Hermione
Hermione

As much as I dislke all this government - and I do - I certainly have no objections to laws being enacted to protect the consumers personal information.  It is just ashame that it takes BIG government to keep BIG business out of our personal affairs.

HollyKick
HollyKick

and who is suing ... lawyers ? i think we have too many lawyers who are scratching their heads to look at ways in which they can grab money.  Lawyers are the white collar terrorists in my opinion. this is one class of profession that has really no value to civilized society.  I dont care if i get marketing offers ... everyone wants to market things, some flood email boxes, some flood physical boxes .. its ok .. just take it and dump it .. are you being charged for the marketing material ??? So just shut up lawyers ..

haydesigner
haydesigner

@jsmith01284, you make it seems like we have to choose between them. We should not, and do NOT, have to choose one or the other.

sbsigneur
sbsigneur

@WaltDittrich And actually, I believe, if you DON'T want to input your zip AT the pump, you can opt to go inside and pay without submitting your zipcode.

jfrykman
jfrykman

Are you really that stupid? Of course they know your zip code...it's on the magnetic stripe! They ask for it because if you couldn't provide it, you just might have a stolen card! Duh!

JackieNichols1
JackieNichols1

@AlexandraRue Gas stations have the ability to check the zip code that you enter against the zip code on file with your credit card company.  This is a simple (and fairly weak) way of verifying that it is your credit card.

jfrykman
jfrykman

If you have been an IT professional for 30 years, you wouldn't care about giving out your zip code. It's hardly personal as it is likely shared by 20,000 other people! You can't be that stupid or paranoid. Anyone who has your address can easily get your zip code in less than a minute. If they don't have your address, why would you care if they know your zip code? Are you also secretive about the name of the city you live in?

americannight
americannight

@JackieNichols1 I used to work at Radio Shack.  The personal info was never required to make a purchase but the thing with Radio Shack is that they would reprimand the employees if they did not have a high percentage getting the name and address.  People generally don't know that.  The only reason the employee probably gave you dirty looks is because they knew it was going to count against them when they got reviewed.  Also it was a fire-able offense for the clerk to enter fake names and addresses into the computer.  I don't think Radio Shack does this any longer.  As the story points out, the retailers no longer need to gather all this info at the point of sale.  There are analytics now so all they really need are a name and zip code to send their marketing materials to you.

laquitaemerson
laquitaemerson

@SmashCrasher I live in an apartment with tiny mailboxes. Everyday, mine is full to overflowing with junk mail. Atleast 7-8 large circulars, plus postcards and those fake personalized envelopes. If I skip a day, there is so much that the mail person will bundle it all up and place it outside my apartment door.  Once I was unexpectedly hospitalized for five days and returned to find that my community association had fined me $50 for having mail all over the hallway!  

I have had my name removed from as many lists as I can manage by making repeated demands and even threatening legal action, but the flow continues. I receive little legitimate first class snail mail, so I feel a lot of resentment about this.

It's ridiculous how much paper and fuel is being wasted sending people ads they don't want.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@DelmarKnudson  I find them easy to discard, but what really gets me is the unwanted phone calls.  "unavailable" calls me every day about twenty times a day.  I'm getting ready to cancel my landline but find the landline is still the best way for the Mrs and me to talk to our family members at the same time.

Darryl_Edington
Darryl_Edington

@HollyKick Our government consists of wealthy lawyers hand-picked and funded by secret donors who recently re-voted to secretly spy on all of use without cause. I say we spread the list of names around, of the people who did this and we unite as Democrats and Republicans and throw all of the spies out of our government. Since when do employees get caught spying on the bosses and not get fired? Never. Let's boot every single one of these constitutionally ignorant "lawyers" from both parties and send the message that we will accept the threat of possible terrorism over certain tyranny. We are coming for you NSA... you forgot - you work for us. We will watch YOU!

BruceGoodwin
BruceGoodwin

@HollyKick                                                                                                                                                                                       thats well an good until you need a lawyer then you will change your tune

goblue562
goblue562

Then why the heck don't you get an unlisted number if it bugs you so much?

RobertHanson
RobertHanson

@BruceGoodwin @HollyKick Yeah but all these class actions are legal blackmail. The lawyers make millions and the victims get a check for 59 cents. Legalized fraud is still fraud.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

So I have to pay extra so people don't call on something I'm paying for in the first place?