Is Your Favorite Store Cyberstalking You?

retail cyberstalkedYour favorite store may be experimenting with ways to track your behavior when you shop. As CNN reports, Nordstrom recently ended a test program that pinged shoppers' smartphones as they shopped. The pings provided data about which departments customers visited and could be used to provide real data on customer behavior, sales and market trends.

Other stores, including Best Buy, Victoria's Secret and Home Depot, track customers who make returns using software from The Retail Equation. However, these forms of cyberstalking are ultimately creepy, and stores are getting blowback from customers who feel this is invasive. If your favorite store is tracking you, how can you tell? And what can you do about it?

Can you tell if a store is tracking you?

To find out whether your favorite store tracks its returns, read the fine print on your receipt. Stores that track you using The Retail Exchange software generally notify you of this fact on the receipt. You may also see whether a store asks to see identification when you make a return. These stores will scan and send your license plus details on your return to The Retail Exchange, which holds on to your data for an unspecified length of time, notes DailyTech. If you purchase and return items in a manner that resembles patterns retail thieves use, stores may deny your return.

While The Retail Exchange won't compare your return data across brands — any Home Depot return you make is only compared against Home Depot returns, even if you also returned items to Best Buy — consumer advocates protest the trend. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much that you can do about it: Sometimes, you need to return items that you buy. As long as you aren't making a habit of this, your return behavior should not raise red flags.

To find out if a store tracks your phone while you shop, look around: Stores may post a sign, as Nordstrom did when it conducted its campaign. Unless stores explicitly tell customers this is happening, either in store or via their website, you may not be able to find out if you are being tracked.

Opting out from the prying eyes of retail

If you know a store is tracking you, consider turning off your smartphone or disabling the wireless scanning so that it no longer looks for a wireless signal. This way, you opt out of the tracking. Some store scanning programs, such as Nomi, allow customers to opt out of having their data collected. Unfortunately, there is a "Catch-22": To opt out, you would first need to know that your data was being collected. Unless you know, you are stuck.

What to do to protect your privacy

Using public wireless networks can expose you to identity theft, and if your favorite store has an unsecured wireless network, identity thieves may already be there. Lifelock.org notes that identity monitoring services can provide peace of mind that your back accounts, credit cards and personal information are safe from thieves. There's no getting around the fact that you need to purchase and pay for items, and this can help you do so securely.

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