July 6th, 2004

Companies Sell Details on Millions of Children

By Jolayne Houtz
Seattle Times

For sale: your toddler’s name, birth date, gender, address, phone number and family income.

Who’s buying? Anyone with a few hundred dollars and a product to sell.

Commercial list brokers are selling the personal information of millions of children as young as age 2. And for now, it’s legal.

Most parents won’t be shocked to learn that children are a lucrative market for corporate America, which spends $15 billion a year to reach them with marketing and advertising.

The surprise is that it starts so early and that so much explicit detail is available about children before they’re even out of diapers.

The Web site of one list broker offers a "preschool through junior high" list with 20 million names. Price: $70 per 1,000 names.

Suggested uses are direct-mail solicitations for children’s magazines and catalogs, photography services, teen pageants, book clubs and camps.

"That just smells bad," said Jean Carpenter, executive director of the Washington State PTA. "It’s just basic privacy it’s not right to profit off children’s information if their parents haven’t opted in."

Legislation introduced in Congress would prohibit the peddling of children’s information without parental consent.

It’s part of a wave of new interest in limiting advertising and commercial influences on children, underscored by growing concern about a possible link between junk-food marketing and childhood obesity.

Some Seattle-area parents and privacy advocates are split on whether this practice is invasive, harmful or just an unavoidable fact of American life.

Advocates blame overexposure to advertising and marketing as a factor in eating disorders, irresponsible sexuality, materialism and more.

"We’ve granted corporations tremendous privileges to speak to our kids but few responsibilities in how they can speak to them," said Gary Ruskin of Portland-based Commercial Alert, which he co-founded with Ralph Nader. "Some things just shouldn’t be for sale."

No restrictions on sales

List brokers won’t say exactly how they harvest children’s information.

Two of the major companies in the field did not return repeated calls for comments. On their Web sites, they say the information is collected from "proprietary" or "direct-response" sources.

"That’s one of the things that makes this so troubling," said Carol Guthrie, spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Wyden and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, co-sponsored the Children’s Listbroker Privacy Act, which would prohibit buying and selling personal information about children under age 16 unless a parent consents (or if the purpose is noncommercial, as in distributing information about scholarships). The bill is slated for a hearing in the fall.

Regulations already limit the collection and disclosure of children’s personal information in certain circumstances what schools can release, for example, or what information can be collected from children online.

"But after it’s been collected, there’s not been much to restrict its sale," Guthrie said.

The Direct Marketing Association supports the basic principle of the legislation, though it’s pushing for rules that would allow direct pitches to 13- to 16-year-olds.

Children under age 13 "shouldn’t be marketed to," said Jerry Cerasale, the association’s senior vice president for government affairs.

He said most members wouldn’t be hurt by such a law because their practice is not to release the first names of young children on lists they sell. Marketing material goes to the family, not directly to the child, Cerasale said.

However, the Web sites of some list brokers say the records they sell include the full names of children. And many parents can attest that marketing material sent directly to their young children is not uncommon.

Privacy advocates say children’s information is probably collected from many sources: official birth and census records, product-warranty cards, child-care centers that sell client lists, children’s magazine subscriptions, giveaways of children’s products, and catalog purchases.

Parents may sign up for such things and not realize the information could be rolled into a marketing database for sale. Later, the information may come from children themselves through contests, surveys and games that require them to provide it.

Two of the biggest companies in the field, American Student List and Student Marketing Group, settled with the Federal Trade Commission in 2003 over charges that they collected detailed personal information from students as young as age 10 through surveys administered at their schools by deceptively claiming they would use the information only to connect students with higher education.

The companies then sold the information to marketers.

Even before babies are born, retailers race to connect with parents through free samples and information distributed through doctors’ offices.

Ruskin points to Growing Family, a company that takes newborns’ pictures in most of the nation’s hospitals. The company’s privacy policy says that by buying a photo package, parents are automatically consenting to share their information with "carefully selected marketing partners."

Marketers’ perspective

Marketers dispute that advertising has negative effects on children.

It’s helpful, they say, to have offers and product information targeted to your needs and your child’s stage of development. And it should be up to parents to turn off the TV, throw away the direct-mail advertising and screen out marketing they believe is inappropriate.

Some brokers say they’re careful about who buys their lists. Student Marketing Group and American Student List say they require a sample mailing to be provided for their approval before shipping.

Others don’t. The List Guy’s founder and manager, Russ Guillemot, said he doesn’t screen prospective clients. But the Oceanside, Calif.-based list broker does protect his own privacy by requiring clients to sign an agreement that they won’t name him as the source of their mailing lists. He said legislation limiting the sale of children’s personal information is unnecessary.

"Everybody is pro-privacy and anti-business but it just makes it more difficult for people to sell their products, and prices go through the roof," Guillemot said. "Getting something in the mail seems to me the most basic, simple, unobtrusive way" to reach people.

Parents say they screen

Some parents worry about their children’s personal information falling into the wrong hands.

A Portland TV station ran a story last spring in which the station paid $360 to buy a list containing the names and addresses of 3,000 children from The List Guy using the name of a man accused of kidnapping and murdering two Oregon City girls.

While there’s no evidence suggesting child predators use these lists to track victims, the suggestion that they could is disquieting.

"I’m uncomfortable if [the information] is not just going to legitimate companies," said Jennifer Rothwell of Seattle, mother of 9-month-old Roland.

But Rothwell said she doesn’t worry about direct-mail advertising having a negative influence on her baby.

"It’s in the schools, everywhere. It’s just part of our world," she said. Rothwell said she trusts her instincts to protect Roland and sees it as an opportunity to teach him "what he can believe and what he can’t."

Other parents say they welcome the offers or coupons that show up at just the right moment, like the birthday-party catalog that arrives right before a child’s birthday.

Brita Butler-Wall, Seattle School Board vice president, said parents should consider the impact and pervasiveness of marketing aimed at children.

She remembers arriving home one day to find her then-9-year-old daughter sitting at the kitchen table with a letter in her hand and a stunned look on her face. The letter, addressed to her, said she had just won a $1 million sweepstakes.

"It was cruel. ... I think parents would be shocked to learn their children’s privacy is for sale," said Butler-Wall, who also serves on Commercial Alert’s board.

Advertising aimed at children exploits their vulnerabilities and seeks to turn them into lifelong customers, privacy advocates say.

"These lists allow advertisers to target kids directly and bypass their parents," said Susan Linn, author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."

Linn helped start a national coalition called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, which says that children influence $500 billion in spending every year, and that corporations have doubled the amount they spend to reach them in the past decade.

Linn and Ruskin say even the most vigilant parents will have a hard time on their own holding back the tide of a $15 billion children’s-marketing industry.

"It’s a total mismatch. It’s like Hasbro has the H-bomb, and we’ve got a couple screwdrivers," Ruskin said.

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or

Marketing to kids: What you can do

Have your name removed from mailing lists (as well as telemarketing and e-mail lists) through The Direct Marketing Association. If you sign up, the DMA requires its members to remove your name from their customer lists (unless you’re an existing customer) and says it can reduce the amount of junk mail by as much as 80 percent. Remember to have your children’s names removed, too. Go to http://www.dmaconsumers.org. You can sign up by mail (free) or online ($5).

Be careful what you sign up for. When you use your child’s name to enter a contest, make a catalog purchase or subscribe to a magazine, your child’s information could wind up on a list.

Think hard about limiting TV and screen time. Move TVs out of children’s rooms, and put your home computer in a central area of the house where you can monitor online activities.

Consider limiting purchases of toys, bedding, clothes and food items that are "branded" with TV characters. Privacy advocates say branded gear leads children to make positive associations with characters that can be used later to sell them junk food or other products you may want to limit.

As children get older, talk to them about privacy. Tell them to be careful about pop-up ads on Web sites or other promotions offering prizes or gifts. Warn them not to give out personal information without checking with you.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about deceptive advertising or Web sites that request information from children under age 13. Go to: http://www.ftc.gov/privacy/

More information:

A number of organizations seek to inform parents about privacy issues and push for limits on advertising to children. Two prominent ones: Commercial Alert (http://www.commercialalert.org) and Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (http://www.commercialexploitation.org)

The Consumer Federation of America offers a brochure for parents on Internet privacy and children: http://www.consumerfed.org/internet_brochure1.html

What’s available from list brokers

Student Marketing Group of Lynbrook, N.Y., is one of the most prominent children’s list brokers. This is an excerpt from the company’s Web site showing the kinds of lists it sells "guaranteed to be 98 percent accurate," the company says.

Preschool: Children between the ages of 2 and 5. The file is updated monthly and NCOA’d quarterly. (NCOA’d refers to National Change of Address, a service provided by the U.S. Postal Service.) Each record includes the child’s full name, address and age.

Elementary school: Children aged 5 to 11. ... Each record includes the child’s full name, address and age.

Junior-high school (tweens): Children aged 11 to 13. ... Each record includes the child’s full name, address and age.

High school: Students who are starting to make purchasing decisions on their own. ... Each record includes the child’s full name, address, class year and other information that can help in targeting your specific student and date of birth.

College-bound high school: Students with intentions of going to college. Each record includes the child’s full name, age, class year, gender, GPA, class rank and many other important demographic and psychographic selects.

College students: Our new College Students Database is updated continuously throughout the year. Each record includes the student’s full name, gender, college type and many other important demographic and psychographic selects.

Young adults: Between the ages of 19 and 40. ... You can select by age, gender, income and many other demographic and psychographic variables.

Source: Student Marketing Group, http://www.studentmarketing.net

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