DENVER (CBS4) - Roughly 60 percent of the mail we get can be classified as junk mail, but sometimes that flood of mail seems nonstop, and the pitches are often unsettlingly specific. This tends to happen particularly after major life events.
A CBS4 Investigation has uncovered that government agencies at all levels are selling personal information to marketing companies.
Eric Meer is a small business owner who works out of his home in Denver's Stapleton neighborhood. Meer says he was deluged by direct mail after registering his small business with the Colorado Secretary of State. He says many of the ads he received were deceptive asking him to pay fees that he wasn't required to pay.
Meer had a hunch the Secretary of State was selling his business information to marketing companies. CBS4 confirmed his hunch was right. Last year, the Secretary of State brought in $59,000 for business registration data.
"It feels like a betrayal," Meer said. "Because our government is supposed to protect us, not to sell our information and profit from us."
Spokesperson Andrew Cole confirms the Secretary of State sells business information for monetary amounts ranging from $200 to $12,000, depending on frequency and amount of information requested. But, Cole says the fees only cover the costs of running the databases.
"We are not looking to make money," said Cole. "We charge to cover our costs."
According to Cole, there is no way to opt out of these lists and anyone can buy them, even scammers. There is no screening process.
"It's a public database," Cole said. He said it's "meant to be public" and part of running a transparent government.
The Secretary of State also sold voter registration information -- including names, addresses and political party affiliation of voters -- for $58,000, last year.
Do you ever notice a surge of confusing mail after refinancing, a foreclosure, or buying a house? The Denver Clerk and Recorder made $32,000 last year selling home sale data.
It happens in college, too. The University of Colorado Boulder buys names from the SAT for 33 cents each and names from the ACT for 34 cents each for recruiting purposes. CU sells student information to private meal plans and storage companies for $15,000 a year.
Even death is for sale. The Social Security Administration sells a "Master Death Index" for 7,500 each. The result, an onslaught of letters to surviving family members asking to purchase a home.
Local marketer Becky Seely has purchased lists in the past and says it's clear these agencies are catering to marketers.
"What average consumer needs to know the deaths that happened in the last three months or the new businesses that registered?" asks Seely.
But she says most of the time we put ourselves on marketing lists without realizing it. The most common ways our information is collected and then circulated is when we enter a contest, use a valued customer shopping card, register a product, subscribe to a magazine or even give money to a charity.
"It's kind of an endless black hole of lists, unfortunately," Seely said.
The Direct Marketing Association has blocked every state effort to create a mandatory "do not mail" registry similar to a do not call list. However, the same group offers its own registry that promises to cut down on the junk mail you receive.
The Direct Marketing Association says you cannot stop bills, statements, notices and political mailings. The group also offers a deceased Do Not Contact list.
- Visit the Direct Marketing Association website at www.dmachoice.org to help cut down on junk mail.
- See a list of companies who purchased the Colorado Secretary of State business data in the past year. (xls file)
- See who bought student information from the University of Colorado in 2013 in this document. (pdf file)
- See who bought the voter rolls from the Colorado Secretary of State in 2013. (pdf file)
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