Skeptical Shopper: E-Coupons May Track Your Spending Habits

The advent of online coupons has made shopping and saving that much easier. In an earlier era, people spent their Sunday mornings clipping coupons out of the newspaper. Now, you can download coupons from dedicated sites like Coupons.com or Ebates.com, or even social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. But this convenience carries certain privacy risks: Some companies track consumer spending habits based on the coupons those consumers use.

One of the bigger players in online coupons is a company called RevTrax. RevTrax clients include stores like Filene's Basement, Lord & Taylor, and Micro Center; restaurants like Ruby Tuesday; and a number of marketing agencies representing multiple clients.

Collecting Your Data

RevTrax says it does not access or store personal information about the people who use coupons. But if you have already provided your personal information to a company, through, for instance, a loyalty club that provides discounts, RevTrax may embed an ID code in a coupon, meaning that when you use that coupon at the store, that company will be able to tie that coupon use to all the other information they have about you.

RevTrax's technology allows clients to see what site you were on when you got the coupon, what time of day you got it, where you were and search keywords that led to the page. Once you redeem the coupon, the RevTrax client can add information such as what you bought, where and how much you spent.

RevTrax says its technology is focused on two things: helping companies figure out which of their promotions are most effective and ensuring that people don't defraud companies by tampering with coupons. As a consumer, there's no easy way to find out if a coupon you click on is offered through RevTrax. And to know how much of your personal information is connected to the coupon requires you to remember how much of your data you've already shared with the company that's issuing the coupon.

(The companies using Rev­Trax's services insist that they use the data simply to reach their customers better.)

Other companies are using other techniques to track customers' spending habits. This spring, Skeptical Shopper looked at a company called Rap­Leaf that used Facebook and Twitter to create targeted ad­­ campaigns for banks and other financial institutions.

Protect Your Privacy

Though most of the data collected when you use a coupon may be harmless, you can never be too sure. I recommend adjusting the privacy settings on your Facebook profile. Also, don't use Facebook Connect to log into e-coupon sites.

ReclaimPrivacy.org has a neat tool that will scan your profile and account settings. For each area of your account, Re­­claimPrivacy will give the setting a green ("good"), yellow ("caution"), or red ("insecure") ranking. If your account settings prompt yellow or red warnings, the site will give you instructions on how to change those problematic settings.

Editor's Note: We have corrected this story to more accurately reflect the role of RevTrax in data gathering related to online coupons. Specifically, RevTrax says it:

>> does not embed or track Facebook, Twitter or other social media IDs in coupons.

>> does not sell personally identifiable information to third parties.

>> does not create consumer profiles, nor does it append its data with other data for the purpose of identifying consumers.

>> does not identify shoppers from third party rewards programs to other parties.

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