Report: Mastercard becoming rich off consumers’ personal info


The good news is that you can stop it just by filling out an online form

It’s natural for a credit card company to know where you shop, how much you spend, and on what days. But, then, if it turns around and sells that information to any company that wants to buy it, some might say that may be going a little too far. 

According to an investigation from US PIRG, Mastercard has increasingly monetized an “immense” amount of transaction data that it has access to over the past several years – enabling companies to improve marketing that can predict your buying behavior prospect for new high-spending customers. 

“It’s like if you hired a babysitter and while watching your kids, they took photos of everything in your house to sell online later,” said R.J. Cross, director of PIRG’s Don’t Sell My Data campaign. 

And, Cross told ConsumerAffairs this isn’t just your straightforward “Mastercard” that’s branded as their own, but also includes other partner-branded “Mastercard" -- like the ones that airlines offer, for example.

Run, but you can’t hide

To show some examples, PIRG pointed ConsumerAffairs to Mastercard’s listing on Amazon Web Services Data Exchange, where we found trough after trough of data that companies can access address listings for:

  • Online Food & Meal Delivery – Frequent Buyers

  • Online Shoppers – High Spenders

  • Likely to Be a Small Business – In Market

  • Luxury Retailers – High Spenders

  • Fast Fashion Apparel Buyers – High Spenders

  • Big Ticket Shoppers (Online) – Frequent Buyers

  • Affluent Shoppers

  • Brick and Mortar Shoppers

  • Luxury Travelers & Tourists

As well as “built-to-order audiences” that a client can spec out to work with their own marketing strategies. Those specs can include an advertiser's choice of: 

  • Transactions (e.g., amount, frequency, offline vs. online)

  • Date and Time (e.g., date range, time of day, weekend vs. weekday)

  • Geography (e.g., country, state/province, DMA, city, region)

  • Industry / Merchants (e.g., Merchant Category Codes (MCCs), custom aggregate set of industry merchants)

“Mastercard creates categories of consumers based on this transaction history, like identifying ‘high spenders’ on fast fashion or ‘frequent buyers' of big-ticket items online, and sells these groupings, called ‘audiences,’ to other entities," the report said.

These groups can be targeted at the micro-geographic level, and even be based on AI-driven scores Mastercard assigns to consumers predicting how likely they are to spend money in certain ways within the next three months.”

But Mastercard isn’t alone

PIRG’s Cross were quick to point out that Mastercard is not the lone wolf in spinning data accumulation into gold. 

“Nor is it necessarily the worst actor," she told ConsumerAffairs. “But in its position as a global payments technology company, Mastercard has access to enormous amounts of information derived from the financial lives of millions, and its monetization strategies tell a broader story of the data economy that’s gone too far.”

Who else is in on this? PIRG said lots of companies – almost every company that can collect and sell data is in the business.

“The big tech companies are the worst offenders, like Meta and Amazon. But also see Mozilla Foundation's report earlier this month that most car companies sell data they collect about consumers – particularly Ford and Toyota. Another report from 2021 found Uber Eats and Grubhub are big sellers, too," Cross noted.

"And the telephone companies, too! T-Mobile in particular has gotten big in this world in the last couple of years."

Does this mean you should cancel your Mastercard credit card?

Now that you know what PIRG found, how far should you go in protecting yourself?

“It's hard to escape credit card companies monetizing your data without your knowledge. Canceling is likely unrealistic for many people,” a spokesperson for PIRG told ConsumerAffairs.

“Right now the best option is to take advantage of the options the payment networks do offer.”

PIRG offers a complete "tips guide" for the Mastercard issue, but here are the highlights:

  • Filling out this form on Mastercard’s website to opt-out of analytics, which will cut down on your data being used for extra purposes.

  • Sign up for its data portal to request it delete your data.

  • If you're a California or Virginia resident, take advantage of your consumer rights, thanks to state consumer privacy laws. 

  • Use this form to delete the data Mastercard uses in its "identity graph" product, which gathers even more personal info. Residents of other states cannot opt out of this program at the time.

Two last things Cross suggests are, first, to email Mastercard's privacy requests email and let the company know they're unhappy with Mastercard's data sales.
"Secondly, people should also write their state lawmakers to say they want to see corporate data sales reined in. States have the power to pass laws to stop companies like Mastercard from inappropriately selling consumers' data."

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