Jim Fisher

Have you guys ever wondered what the deal is with loyalty cards? You know, the little keychain cards (or phone app) you whip out to get a little discount or freebie from retailers? I have a problem with them mainly because I don’t like being asked to sign up for one every time I buy a dang pack of gum. I have to hold my tongue because I know the poor clerk is just doing their job but no, Walgreens, I don’t want to sell my soul to you over a pack of gum. So, privacy is obviously the first victim of loyalty cards, but what else are these things good (or bad) for?

In my research, I came across a scary story from 2004 where 25-year veteran firefighter, Philip Scott Lyons, from Washington state, was charged with trying to set his own house on fire while his wife and three children were inside. A major piece of evidence used against Lyons was the record of his purchases associated with his Safeway loyalty card. Police investigators had discovered that his card was used to buy fire-starters of the same type used in the arson attempt.

It took 5 months of legal wrangling, but the charges were dropped when another person confessed to the crime. The fact remains that Safeway provided a customer's personal information to law enforcement without a court order. I can’t blame the police as what they did was perfectly legal since your card information is shared far and wide by many retailers. Isn’t that crazy? The poor guy will probably never completely recover from the hit on his reputation regardless of his innocence but he would have never been charged to begin if he hadn’t used a loyalty card.

If you read my stuff before, you may recall that I have a complicated relationship with privacy. The fact is that we don’t have privacy anymore regardless of how little we participate in this new connected society. But that doesn't mean we should give up what little privacy we have just for a pack of chewing gum or a fire starter.

The advantages of loyalty cards are that retailers often give back a few pennies for every dollar you spend with them. This type of reward is a "thank you" to the consumer from the store for the privilege of collecting everything they can about you. But the darker side of this is that retailers sell and trade your data to others. Sometimes those others get hacked and your name, address, phone number and shopping history, gets into the hands of criminals or other unsavory characters that will do who-knows-what with this detailed info about you. The danger is amplified with the increasing use of apps instead of cards that may or may not have access to your contacts or social media friend’s lists. When you add it all up, that’s just too much information to hand over for the crumbs of rewards you may receive as a shopper.

Jim Fisher owns Excel Computer Services in Florence. Reach him at www.ExcelAL.com