L. L. Bean got me all excited by telling me they handled my private data the right way before I even asked them to. I placed an order and later realized I never asked them to place me on their “don’t rent, don’t sell” list. I called back and asked to be placed on that list, and the friendly voice on the other end of the line assured me they don’t sell/rent anyway! Yay! Finally, I thought, a company that doesn’t buy into the “it’s OK to sell and let people ‘opt out’ if they want” malarkey. The rep marked my account as “don’t rent/sell” anyway, which made me doubly satisfied.

Then I looked at their privacy policy, and found the rep was wrong:

From time to time, we make our mailing list (names and addresses only) and general shopping activity available to carefully screened companies whose products we believe will be of interest to you and whose privacy practices meet the Direct Marketing Association’s privacy standards. If you prefer that we do not share any information with these companies, please contact us.

If you’re wondering why this is a big deal for me, it’s because most companies start selling your information the moment they get it. They use the euphimism “rent,” along with phrases such as “share,” “make available to,” and “carefully selected” (by what criteria – highest bidder?) to make it sound more acceptable.

Even the “good” companies do this, such as the Christian-owned Sierra Trading Post. Worse yet, companies don’t tell you they’re doing it. You’re expected to read through their online privacy policies (why would you go read a privacy policy on a website, when you called on the phone to request a catalog?) and figure it out, and believe me, sometimes it can be hard to figure it out. So, dear reader, next time you call someone and ask for their catalog or place an order, consider that you may be unknowingly “agreeing” to some things you need to read their website to find out about, too.

I abhor this “opt-out” policy and firmly believe it should be unequivocally banned by law. It leads to all sorts of abuses and is just flat-out unethical. You should have to opt in, not out. But everyone does it, which saddens and angers me. To all you companies out there, hear this:

It’s unethical to sell my name and address because it doesn’t belong to you. And it’s especially unethical to do it without telling me or making sure I answer “yes” to some direct question about it. If you don’t agree with me, tell me where you live, and I’ll sell the car right out of your garage without telling you. You’ll get up to go to work and it’ll be gone. Then we can discuss and see if your opinion has changed.

On the other hand, there are some awesome companies out there that really make me happy. Dear CDBaby, I salute your integrity:

We NEVER give or sell your personal info to any other company – EVER! (No not even your email address!)

And ThinkGeek, I love you:

We do not release any customer information to third parties.

Now that’s the way to do it. All the rest of you companies, I know the money is hard to resist. I’ve heard people allude to just what a gold mine it is. I know the awkward silence in meetings where this is brought up. I’ve read your evasive replies to my direct emails. But as lucrative as it seems, you’re not really getting anything in the end. You can’t. It’s impossible. You will eventually see consequences, if you don’t already (I know there are already consequences, because I already don’t trust you!). Do the right thing, and I will love you for it and send you my money.