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What is your credit card company revealing about you?

By Jennifer Hale

What is your credit card company revealing about you?

If you're anything like me, you do some instant weeding when you get credit card bills in the mail. Your bill or statement goes into the "do this later" pile, and the envelope, ad inserts and privacy statement get dumped straight into recycling. Maybe, if you're a little more diligent, you save the privacy materials for your filing cabinet, where they collect dust and cobwebs next to documents from years past.

You may have the best cash back credit card or one of the best zero interest credit cards, but by ignoring the privacy policies, you may be creating significant hassle for yourself in the long run.

What does your credit card company know about you?

Think about it. Your card--that piece of plastic that has molded its shape into your wallet--may know more about you right now than most of your friends. Where you shop, what you spend, your habits when repaying (or not repaying). All that information goes back to the issuing company, which has on its hands a treasure trove of data.

After all, our spending habits are extremely valuable to companies that want to market to us. A picture of you as a shopper--who prefers Target to Wal-Mart or spends $500 versus $2,000 a month--helps marketers know what to try to sell you.

And who is it telling?

I'll admit--I had to clear a few cobwebs to find privacy statements from my credit cards. It wasn't exactly a positive portrait of my organization skills and financial savvy.

When I did find them (cough), I was pleasantly surprised by one. It shared my information internally for marketing purposes, yes, but no information was shared with third parties. The language was clear, and directions for changing my sharing preferences--where I could--were easy to follow. The outfit was USAA, the financial house that caters to military service members and their families. USAA has its eyes on a bigger prize: It sells mortgages, insurance and investments, so presenting a trustworthy image is part of its brand.

The default for many cards, however, isn't so limited. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) describes companies' options in sharing your information both within their own walls, with affiliate companies, and with nonaffiliates (in other words, third-party companies your credit card issuers can sell your information to).

Decide what you're willing to share

So, should you be bothered? I don't know about you, but I find it a little off-putting that Google parses my email and knows to suggest child-care sites and "Star Trek" paraphernalia based on what I write to my friends. Credit card data-sharing is not too different; information on your habits and preferences is leaving your control and being used to sell you something.

It's also potentially exposing you to more junk snail mail and email you don't want.

Then, take action

What's the first thing you need to do? You probably guessed it already: Dig out those privacy statements. As it turns out, you don't need to inhale a snootful of dust when you're digging out your card agreements; the Credit CARD Act of 2009 requires credit card companies to post their agreements online, as noted by the Federal Reserve.

Whether they're in a folder, at the bottom of a box or online, those documents are your first source of information about how your information is being used. Then you can discover if opting out to the level you want is an option.

As someone who rushed the then-new National Do Not Call Registry like it was an Arcade Fire ticket sale, I'm a big fan of opting out. We're exposed to marketing messages all day, every day--on websites, in billboards and now artlessly integrated into our TV shows (looking at you, "Bones"), so why invite more with inertia?

With the right information about what your credit card company is sharing, and with whom, you can make the right choice for you.

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