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Stores Spy On Customers By Tracking Cell Phones

BOSTON (CBS) - Many stores are now tracking shoppers from the second they walk through the door.

This is not about preventing shoplifting but about knowing a shopper's habits. And to get this information stores are tapping into your cell phone's Wi-Fi.

"They can tell how long you were in the store and which departments you were at," explains Edgar Dworsky of Somerville-based

Stores say this type of Wi-Fi tracking is anonymous and it gives retailers important information that ultimately helps customers, like knowing when to put more cashiers at the register or sales associates on the floor.

Nordstrom used the technology for nine months at 17 stores including the one at the Natick Mall and at the Nordstrom Rack in Danvers. The experiment ended after complaints from customers.

Family Dollar tells us they are testing it out in one store but they won't say which one.

Connect to Target's free Wi-Fi and they'll be watching your movements in the store and on your phone.

"It's something just about every retailer is taking a hard look at now-a-days," says Jules Polonetsky the executive director of Future of Privacy.

Future of Privacy is working with privacy advocates, retailers, and tech companies on a set of guidelines for this type of in-store tracking. The rules would be enforceable by the federal government. One of those possible rules would be to let customers know when they are being tracked.

Even though stores say the program benefits customers they are not always quick to let customers in on the secret.

"It's a challenge for retailers to make the case to consumers: look here's what we are doing, here's why we are doing this, here's how we are trying to help, otherwise they'll be concerned," says Polonetsky.

Shop online and those stores can easily collect a lot of information about you.

Tracking a shopper's cell phone inside a store could just level the playing field for brick-and-mortar retailers.

Still not interested in being tracked? Then be sure to turn off your phone's Wi-Fi and you can shop without big brother watching.


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