Should You Be Swapping Loyalty Cards?

Consumerist reader Eyebrows McGee (probably not her real name) suggests a clever and subversive technique for sticking it to the Loyalty Program Man: swap your loyalty cards with other shoppers. The cardexchange.org website is a one-stop destination for finding someone out there you can exchange with. But before you visit it, you should consider the consequences and risks.

For one thing, swapping cards doesn’t stop the data collection process, it just breaks it; for all you know, your local Rite-Aid will just now assume that you switched to another brand of soap, or that you seem to have a recurring case of jock itch, or that you suddenly developed diabetes. This is all very funny, yes, but since it will be linked to your name, it doesn’t actually give you true privacy, but rather replaces your real data profile with a false one. Another thing to keep in mind is that, in the case of cardexchange.org, you have to exchange physical addresses with a complete stranger–which sort of ruins the point of “protecting your privacy” in the first place.

Another risk, however unlikely, is that your shopping records can be subpoenaed, which means… well, you can imagine the various thriller scenarios where you’re framed for a horrible crime and, because of an unlucky coincidence in your totally fabricated shopping record, you seem to have a long history of purchasing rat poison. (We’re not sure this would ever hold up in court, but we have an abiding fear of prison.) The sad truth is that your shopping records can be subpoenaed whether they’re really yours or not, but at least if they’re actually yours, you can make sure they don’t contain incriminating information.

There was a flurry of online interest in subverting loyalty programs a few years back, but most of what remains of it today is displayed on web pages from 2002 or older. For those inclined to civil disobedience, your best bet if you want to muddy the data record yet still retain some trust is to follow Eyebrows McGee’s advice, and swap with friends (and/or family).

Resources: cardexchange.org

(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. supra606 says:

    I think this is a pretty awesome sounding idea. I don’t know if I like the idea of doing it with complete strangers but maybe among a circle of friends…

  2. jmschn says:

    but i like the marketing dept to know what products i buy!

  3. SOhp101 says:

    A lot of the time when you fill out those applications for the loyalty programs the information isn’t verified. So why not just put in fake information and a fake phone number that you will always remember so that you can use the # instead of always lugging around hundreds of those plastic key chain things?

  4. ptkdude says:

    @jmschn: I always sign up as Herman Muenster, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, so I’m not worried about privacy. I *do* like the coupons I get, too.

  5. missdona says:

    I love my phone number 212-777-3456

    moviefone!

  6. AtomikB says:

    You can ask for a loyalty card application (which has the actual card stuck to the form), then tell the clerk at the store that you need to fill it out at home. Take the card off the form and throw the form away, The card will still work, but with no personal info attached (until you make a credit card purchase with your loyaltay card scanned on the transaction — then they’ll have personal info linked to your card again).

  7. myls says:

    Somehow, several years back, I got one of those cards without having to fill in the flier, so it’s totally anonymous. I recommend that method. (I think I was in a hurry and got a really nice checker. I don’t know if I would ever be able to do it again.)

    My boyfriend has my other version of that same loyalty card, and the info on it is horribly (like 5 or 6 years) out of date, and my name is misspelled. That works too, and provides much needed moments of levity after grocery shopping.

  8. Keegan99 says:

    Re: Subpoenas

    Don’t swap with someone in your city. In any criminal investigation, it’d be pretty clear that “your” purchase records weren’t really yours if all the purchases were half a continent away from your home.

  9. typetive says:

    Who puts real information on those? I’ve been Georgia Orwell for years.

  10. myls says:

    @AtomikB: At Vons/Safeway, they don’t actually connect the information. If I use cash on my anonymous card, it goes through as anonymous, and really confuses the less attentive cashiers.

  11. IndyJaws says:

    I don’t understand why I should be concerned about my buying habits being tracked? They see I like Brand A, B and C. They send me targeted coupons for these brands. I save money on my favorite brands, while saving money on other purchases that require the loyalty card. Isn’t the name of the game saving money? What nefarious Orwelian plot should I be worred about? So they know that I prefer Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi? Horrors!

  12. @SOhp101:
    Ding. Keeps the safeway circulars out of your mailbox too.

    @IndyJaws: Still, I tend to agree with IndyJaws. Just because something is mildly disconcerting, it doesn’t amount to a privacy conspiracy. Yeah, I don’t like info being collected on me either, but if it saves me money in the long run and doesn’t come back to haunt me (how could it? I mean, aside from the subpoena example in the post, which could be avoided if you or the person you traded with paid with credit) how bad could it be?

  13. gibsonic says:

    i need to get people to use my Kroger card, i get $.10 off per gallon of gas for every $100 spent.

  14. foghat81 says:

    @gibsonic: Giant Eagle gives you $0.10 off per gal for every $50 you spend! awesome.

  15. Canadian Impostor says:

    @SOhp101: Exactly. My cards have absurdly false information. I know CVS thinks my name is Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, for instance.

  16. JoeFus says:

    Just FYI, most companies now track your purchases by credit card number, not by loyalty card number. Have you noticed that an increasing number of stores have a “store card” that they can scan for you? The purpose of the card these days is just to serve as a visual reminder that you should shop at a given store.

  17. RandomHookup says:

    My local drug store thinks I am a shopper with daily vaginal itch, massive monthly menstrual flow issues, a huge hormonal problem requiring a new razor every week, raging diabetes, horrible teeth requiring a tube of toothpaste a day, indigestion to beat the band and hourly headaches. Since I’m a single dude living alone, their market info is pretty busted cause of all the stuff I get for free with coupons and then donate.

  18. AndyMan1 says:

    I went for about a week just seeing how many of those things I could collect. Went in daily to my King Sooper, asked for a new card everytime without filling it out. They don’t give a crap.

    Unless the card has some sort of cumulative reward system (every $100 bucks you spend gets you x amount off gas), just ask to use the clerks card. They’ll do that most of the time without any further dialog.

  19. SadSam says:

    I think that if a potential murderer doesn’t know to buy his/her rat poison at least 100 miles from home with cash and without scanning his/her loyalty card, said potential murderer deserves jail just for being stupid. If you want to avoid data tracking/collection of your purchasing habits don’t buy anything with a credit card, debit card, on-line, or with a loyalty card.

  20. jmschn says:

    LoL yea..im not sure if anyone really puts real info on this..im like everyone where i have fibbed before =)

  21. ellmar says:

    I like to use fake info when filling out the “loyalty” card applications, just to mess with them. Sometimes I forget that I’ve told them I’m 109 years old until the cashier hands me the auto-coupons for Depends or prune juice that print out with my store receipts! Oh the simple joys of screwing with the Man.

  22. Chicago7 says:

    I’m telling you, the only way to do this is to look around and pick one up off the ground. They are out there. You can find one. It only took me 3 weeks or so to find a new Jewel card, just laying in the street. And that’s because I passed up a couple of dirty ones.

  23. bohemian says:

    Hmm. Fake card info and pay cash. Smacks head for not thinking of that. I just might sign up for some of the discount cards they pressure me to get to avoid the 10% surcharge for not complying like a good little citizen.

  24. hoo_foot says:

    My main grocery card has the address and phone number of the dorm room that I lived in 2001. My other cards have the phone and address information of my local Wal-Mart (yes, I use my local Wal-Mart’s information + fake name for anythin that requires online registration).

  25. beyond says:

    Just give false information. I have a fake phone number that I always give to retailers when they ask. That way if by some bizarre chance I need to give them that number again, I can, but they still can’t call me.

  26. BII says:

    On the self checkouts for albertson’s (and at the manned checkouts too, IIRC), it lets you input your phone number instead of scanning your card. for some reason, ***-567-5309 always seems to work.

    So that’s kind of like bugmenot for real life.

  27. @IndyJaws: The Bi-Lo that used to be near my last place should have tried that. “Hey, people buy a lot of product A. We should stock more of it!”

    Instead, they refused to stock a product at all if they ran out before an new shipment came in even when I asked about one specifically (and repeatedly).

    I hope they weren’t surprised when they went out of business.

  28. Chicago7 says:

    Sure, VERIZON gives out a fake number and everybody is ticked off. And then YOU turn around and give a fake number. I see. Tit for tit, I guess. Or tat for tat. But definitely not tit for tat.

    :D

  29. jeffeb3 says:

    really, the only thing good that could possibly come out of this is if you switched like all the time, and the statistics they came up with showed no trends.

    SO if they were trying to tell a marketing company that the same type of people buy jell-o and disposable razors, but the information was so random (because everyone shared everyones cards) that no conclusion could be made, then there would be no more use to track your purchases. That would never work because you are only exchanging once or twice, and it’s a pain in the ass, and most people don’t care, and what’s the real problem anyways? Why do these people want to use your card instead of theirs anyways unless they were going to buy the ingredients to make napalm and were too cheap to do it without the card or forge a fake one.

    This is a useless idea. Nice try, cardexchange.org

  30. salsa says:

    My CVS receipts when I use my card always say “Thank you, Ms. Matheos Christofakos” which is definitely not my name. I think I got the card from my friend’s hippie mom when I lost mine, but that’s not her name either.

  31. Djinn says:

    Why not just get a mag stripe reader/writer and change the information or do really what ever you want to the card.

  32. D-Bo says:

    My family does this since we all live relatively close together and shop at the same grocery store. We do it because my parents are avid travelers and one of the benefits of the program are airline miles. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t bother. I bet it would be pretty funny to look at the records of three households shopping but reporting to be one person.

  33. Djinn says:

    @jeffeb3: You are missing the point here. We must find every way possible to stick it to the man. Be it from overthrowing the government to using a fake loyalty card…. Uh Oh, now “they” are going to be watching me now.
    …Crafts tin foil hat

  34. Djinn says:

    I have a better idea. We can build a device on the card that changes the barcode every time it is swiped. So potentially every product you buy would be under a different random person or identity.

  35. howie_in_az says:

    @AtomikB: Do they? You’d think that there would be some automated process to do this, but at both Fry’s and Basha’s, two grocery stores here in Arizona, I still show up as ‘VALUED CUSTOMER’ and not my name, even after having had their VIP cards for at least a year and buying most groceries with my debit card.

    Or perhaps they’re really sly and want me to think they don’t know who I am…

  36. ThinkAboutItPlease says:

    Supermarket loyalty cards are an outrageous violation of privacy, as well as a truly wasteful and anti-social practice, and, I say, anything that foils them is reasonable and called-for. But Katherine Albrecht has some very good arguments in favor of never using such cards, period, in an essay titled “10 Reasons Not to Use a Fake Card“, here: http://www.nocards.org/essays/nofakes.shtml.

  37. MBZ321 says:

    The best option to do is for someone to create a database, similar to bugmenot, for loyalty card numbers. Then all someone has to do is turn it into a barcode (won’t work at some chains, but will work for most), then everybody can just print out the same barcode where they shop, scan it, and really throw the data off. Some cards work at more than one chain…for example, if someone posts an Albertsons card number, it will (or should) work at Acme, Jewel, Shaw’s, etc..and that would really mess with whoever collects the data. They have something similar to my idea at justoneclubcard.com, but that is with using your own numbers.

  38. LibidinousSlut says:

    Jeez, am I the only person who studied econ? It doesn’t really “save” money, it just raises the prices more for everyone who doesn’t have a card. Similarly, why I try not to use my credit/debit card especially in smaller stores – the fees associated with the card raises the cost of prices in stores, since they have to recoup the cost of accepting the card.

  39. ChapstickAddict says:

    What exactly is the problem with loyalty cards? Wasn’t there a case several years ago when an Acme was able to notify customers who had purchased bad meat that there was a recall because of the loyalty card system? Besides, I really enjoy getting coupons for things I actually buy.

    Also, @howie_in_az: I think Fry’s never changes to your name. I’ve been shopping at the same Fry’s for two years using my loyalty card (which I, gasp!, registered for) and the same credit card and I still show up as VALUED CUSTOMER, too.

  40. Russellkhan says:

    A few years ago I tried to do something somewhat similar to what these guys were doing, only a lot less organized, and not very successfully. What I did was register at a few local chains that use phone numbers as an alternative ID for the cards (using a fake number – 510-843-7226 (510-THE-SCAM)) then I gave out the number to a bunch of people and encouraged them to use it. This went pretty well until shortly after I posted the number to Slashdot, when the cards got canceled for overuse.

    Since then I’ve taken to just punching in a phone number similar to my own and changing what number I use once a year or so.

    I’ll have to look more deeply into how these guys are doing it. It sounds worth supporting.

  41. Kalik says:

    @ Foghat81
    You must be from the burgh!

  42. thedreamingtree says:

    How about just refusing to go along with their gimmicks? I will not shop at local stores that require the use of their spycards to get the discount. Spychips.org tells why we should not participate in these programs, and I agree. Why be deceptive when you can just vote with your feet?

  43. Russellkhan says:

    TheDreamingTree,
    I do agree with you in principle and try to do as much of my shopping as possible at local mom & pop stores (which don’t pull this kind of #$%@), there’s a certain point where the cost becomes too high. In my case, it’s usually a matter of convenience: I mostly get around by bicycle, only occasionally have car access. Because of this, travel time between stores can add up so I end up often going to the large stores which charge extra if you don’t in some way use their tracking system.

  44. aikoto says:

    This is bad idea. You can just get an anonymous card (just ask!) and if they refuse (never happened in my case), just say your name is George Bush and you live at 1600 pennsylvania avenue (etc.)

  45. aikoto says:

    @ChapstickAddict:

    Q: What’s wrong with loyalty cards?
    A: Because you can’t trust companies with your data. They will likely lose or abuse it in some way.

    [www.jeremyduffy.com]

  46. aikoto says:

    @thedreamingtree: Spychips is the anti-RFID site. nocards.org is the anti-card site.

  47. aikoto says:

    Blogged about this site ([www.jeremyduffy.com]) and sent them an e-mail. When all is said and done, exchanging your card is a really bad idea. It supports the industry of value cards and what if the guy you swap with is a criminal and they try to track the person who bought all those meth-lab supplies (which now will appear to be you)?

  48. I tend to use 1060 W. Addison as my fake address. It’s surprising how many people have never seen truly classic movies. :)

    I only swap with friends, and we do it again every now and then. It throws off the data collection. It’s a very small bit of objecting, I know, but it gives me great psychic satisfaction.

  49. And no, it’s not my real name. But those are my real eyebrows!

  50. FLConsumer says:

    We did something like this at my workplace. They switched over to a card-reader system and started getting after people for leaving 5 minutes early on a Friday when there wasn’t any work to do. So… we all took our key-cards, threw them in a box, stirred/shook up the cards well, then all took a card. Problem solved.

  51. Mary says:

    You know, every week I get an email about the specials that are currently happening on the foods I’ve bought in the past. Then I go to the grocery store and I buy extra strawberries because I remember from the email, they’re buy one get one free!

    I realize everybody thinks the loyalty cards are just raising prices for the average consumer who doesn’t use them but really, you think the grocery stores wouldn’t just raise the prices anyway?

    Make sure when you’re signing up with fake information that it’s not a card with other benefits. I know of a specific card that if you don’t sign up with a phone number of some sort (and the computer would yell if you tried an obviously fake number) you really miss out on pretty much every big benefit the card offered.

  52. thedreamingtree says:

    @jeremyduffy: Ah, I remember that site now….thanks jeremyduffy

  53. Bruce says:

    In addition to loyalty cards, many stores are now rudely asking for your Zip code when making purchases, even when you pay with cash. Radio Shack insisted on having my Zip code, well, of course they got 10048 as the answer.

  54. ThinkAboutItPlease says:

    I encourage everyone to peruse both nocards.org, and spychips.org.

    The benefits of card programs are deceptive. The 2-for-1 strawberries (or coupons or sales, etc.)
    (a) get you in the store, where you buy amply priced (non-loss-leader) stuff in addition to the strawberries, or…
    (b) the 2-for-1 may not even be any kind of bargain; e.g., 2-for-1 strawberries at $3.99 may be more expensive, ounce for ounce, than strawberries at another store, such as Trader Joe’s, or at a farmers’ market.

    Do the math. Card-based grocery store marketers are ruthless. The point of the cards is to increase the profit of the grocery stores, period. They know that strategically giving away a pint of strawberries to someone who tends to buy strawberries (which they know from the mountain of data about you that you have allowed them to have) will probably loosen your wallet in the process. Ultimately, they gain and you lose. And they gain through trickery, not through honest win-win transactions. If you go to the store and just get the 2-for-1 strawberries, and don’t get anything else, I bet you won’t be getting any more emails offering you 2-for-1 strawberries. You would become a “deadbeat” customer (cf. credit card companies call people who pay their balance every time “deadbeats” — such customers don’t earn the credit card companies any money). The 2-for-1 strawberries, or any coupons or sales, are not being provided out of the kindness of their charitable hearts. The intent, again, is to ultimately get more money out of you, and ideally not realize that it’s happened.

    Believe me, these people have sucker-grooming down to a science, just about literally. They have mountains of data, and sophisticated statistical analyses at their disposal. Thanks to the cards, and the emails and coupons in the mail, they know who buys what, when, how often, and who responds to what, when, and how often. I think it’s a big mistake to look upon these things like, “Oh, that benevolent grocery corporation and their fabulous discount card program — they just want to give me free strawberries with no ulterior motive whatsoever. And those cards, boy do they save me money!!!” Again, do the math. Add up your grocery bills at card stores vs. non-card stores. Card systems COST MONEY (including labor, electronics, junk mail, etc.). And SOMEBODY has to be pay for them. (They also, by the way, slow down checkout, and, well, are simply a huge violation of privacy.)

    Again, read nocards.org. It’s eye-opening.

    To Jeremy Duffy — just looked at your site — cool, man.

  55. ThinkAboutItPlease says:

    I encourage folks to just say no to questions about your zip code. Taint their business, and it slows down checkout.