Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Supermarket Loyalty Programs: Is Something Bad in the Cards?

Longtime reader Gary P. left a couple of interesting comments in Sunday's post (about the adulterer who was "caught" by an online floral company) that I thought deserved further discussion here. This was his original comment:
The purchase records of supermarket "loyalty" cards are another data source being mined in legal proceedings. Folks in divorce proceedings who bought condoms or pregnancy tests on a "loyalty" card without the other spouse's knowledge, or people in child custody cases who bought cigarettes or liquor or lots of fatty foods on their "loyalty" cards wind up with lots of 'splainin' to do in front of the judge regarding their fitness for custody. had a link to a story some time back of a Seattle-area firefighter who was convicted of arson primarily based on the evidence that he used a "loyalty" card to buy some firestarting material similar to what was used to burn down his house shortly after. Just before he was to be sent to jail, someone else stepped forward to claim responsibility for the fire and the innocent firefighter was freed.

But hey, "loyalty" cards are all about "convenience" and "great price savings," right?
The story he's referring to is here, and the writer notes that "The moral of this story is that even the most innocent database can be used against a person in a criminal investigation turning their lives completely upside down."

(I've been trying to find a link for the story I heard on the radio several years ago, where someone sent a reporter out to pretend that they had found a set of keys with a card from a local chain attached to the keyring. If I recall it correctly, they called the store and were able to get the person's home address from the number on the card, despite not being asked to verify that they were in fact the card's owner. If memory also serves, the person at the store who did that got in quite a bit of trouble.)

Some of the stories at are certainly enough to make one think twice about using these cards. I don't have that big of a personal dog in this fight, because I do the bulk of my food shopping at Super Target, which is cardless thus far. I'll occasionally get gas at Tom Thumb with their card, or maybe some breakfast stuff if it's late and ST is closed, and I use my Albertson's card far less than that. Still, the question is this: Should companies like this be required to turn over such information to law enforcement officers and/or attorneys of other parties in lawsuits? And will people cut up their club cards well in advance of the time when, say, insurance companies start monitoring one's purchases (of, say, junk food, beer, cigarettes, etc.) and using that information to deny a claim? How much paranoia is healthy in this situation? Feel free to chime in using the comments.

A view from the other side of the checkstand: One of the things I discovered while researching this post was the Mad Cashier blog. It appears to be written by a DFW-area worker who was a casualty of the recent Albertson's downsizing.

(More links later, or tomorrow.)


Anonymous said...

Can you edit my comment? That should be "... card to buy some firestarting material ... " in the paragraph about the firefighter.


Kev said...

I edited it in the blockquote in this post, but the comments themselves can't be edited at the moment. Don't worry--I won't let the typo affect your final grade. ;-)