Larry Chiang has a little list that he thinks will be of great interest to banks.
There are 140,000 college students on it. They have voluntarily disclosed personal interests and financial details in return for cash from Mr. Chiang's on-line service, Campus Backbone.
To earn their money, the students must read promotional e-mail. The more information they divulge, and the better their credit histories, the more they get paid.
Mr. Chiang said at least one large credit card issuer-he would not say which-has bought his service. His list of prospects is growing, he said, now that many college campuses have banned or restricted in-person card marketing.
Campus Backbone is an "infomediary," a type of service spawned by the Internet that collects and sells consumer information for marketing purposes. Banks are considered prime targets for infomediaries, but concerns about the ethics and effectiveness of such services have tempered interest by some financial institutions.
Infomediaries say their lists can be a more precise marketing tool. Issuers can supplement the staggering volumes of direct mail they send with e-mail solicitations to people who have indicated receptivity.
The infomediaries say that their practice of paying people is necessary to capture consumers' attention, and is no different from the days when banks gave toasters in return for opening new accounts.
Infomediaries also say they can play a role in privacy protection. The companies say their lists save on account-acquisition costs while winnowing out prospects who prefer to be left alone.
One banking company that is articulating a major privacy commitment is Citigroup Inc. It is training its staff about the issues and sending letters to customers explaining how they can "opt out" of certain marketing programs.
"It is the ultimate opt-in to pay consumers to send them advertisements," said Charles Prescott, vice president of international business development and government affairs of the Direct Marketing Association.
Critics of infomediaries, however, see pitfalls.
"This narrow model has limited value," said Joel Friedman, global managing partner at Andersen Consulting. He called the rewards dangled by these services "a bribe."
"There is no indication that consumers will buy something just because they have been marketed to," he said.
Lists hawked by vendors may be of little value, Mr. Friedman said, because the people listed may be more interested in making a buck than in weighing new-product options. Presumably, the prospects could delete their e-mails without reading them. The infomediaries may make money, but the banks that buy lists may walk away empty-handed.
Each infomediary sets a policy about what questions it asks and how it will use the information it gathers.
Campus Backbone, which was launched April 26, is run by United College Marketing Services of Oak Brook, Ill.
The service asks students to disclose how much allowance they receive, what they earn from jobs, Social Security number, telephone numbers at home and school, credit cards they hold, and debt. They are also asked what line of work they intend to pursue and how much money they expect to make.
In return they are paid between 20 cents and $2.50 per e-mail received, or about $15 a month, Mr. Chiang said. Those with spotless credit histories earn more.
On top of the stipends, Campus Backbone is giving two million shares of stock to the first wave of students who sign up. Students who refer friends get extra shares; Mr. Chiang anticipates 10 million subscribers by yearend.
"We are actually paying students for their good credit," said Mr. Chiang, chief executive officer of United College Marketing Services. "Banks want a foot in the door with young people - that's why they pay up to $200 (to acquire) an account."
Campus Backbone has a handful of advertisers, including J. Crew and Amazon.com.
Mr. Chiang said he expects 40% of Campus Backbone's revenues to come from financial service providers that want "more perfect information" about students.
Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University law professor who publishes the newsletter Privacy and American Business, sees the free market at work.
"Fifteen years ago, a number of privacy experts began to talk about privacy as a property right after referring to it as a liberty right," he said. "If consumers' personal information is very valuable for marketing, then it shouldn't be a free good."
The growing clamor about privacy lends appeal to the idea of involving consumers in the information-gathering business. This month, the Clinton administration unveiled a set of privacy proposals that would restrict what banks can do in the name of marketing.
The idea of contacting consumers who want to receive promotions-or at least are not bothered by them-is tantalizing to banks. They sent nearly 3.5 billion credit card solicitations last year; each household received an average of four letters a month.
The Internet makes banks' thirst for consumer information more acute, experts say, and infomediaries' specialized lists can supplement a well- honed customer data base.
Cash giveaways and other incentives are a necessary expense of doing business on the Internet, said Eli M. Noam, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia who has studied the growth of infomediaries.
In a speech at a recent conference in Germany, Mr. Noam said that on the World Wide Web, "attention needs to be bought by providing entertainment, gifts, games, lotteries, coupons."
Without an infomediary, a bank might seek new customers by buying marketing lists with demographic information. Services like Campus Backbone eliminate the need to merge all of this information because the students have voluntarily profiled themselves.
Infomediaries are "giving the consumer incentive to part with some of their information," Mr. Noam said.
Another, non-cash example of an infomediary is Free PC. It gives computers and on-line access to people who give personal information and agree to accept e-mail ads.
Free PC is so intent on gathering names that it does not post information about its service on its Web site. To receive an e-mail with a description of the service, consumers must fill in their first and last names, ZIP codes, and Web addresses.
DirectWeb of Mount Laurel, N.J., offers a low-cost computer package with an Internet gateway and proprietary home page. Subscribers-paying $19.95 to $49.95 a month and committing for three years-are asked for personal information, including Social Security numbers and how many children they have.
DirectWeb, which became available March 31 in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, is negotiating with several banks to develop a cobranded credit card. Chief operating officer Chris Vavricka, a former Citibank and Visa executive who is leading the effort, said the company is "close to signing a deal."
DirectWeb targets consumers who do not have computers or Internet access, said Glenn Goldberg, vice president of marketing. "We are about demystifying the Internet for the 75% of households that have not experienced it yet," he said.
"We might determine from our data base that 60% of our customers have purchased sporting goods, and we might contact such a company to sponsor the sporting Web page of our site," Mr. Goldberg said. But "we will allow the individual at their discretion to build a profile of what they want to see or don't want to see."
Some Internet companies encourage visitors to enter on-line contests, in which a prize is awarded to someone who has filled in the requisite boxes of personal information.
Others are giving away credits that can be redeemed for merchandise.
Shop2u.com is building a data base of people who like to receive catalogues from major retailers. Its Web site tells prospective customers that describing their preferences to marketers will help cut down on the junk mail they receive.
People who sign up for Shop2u and answer ongoing "special interest surveys" get catalogues in exchange for reading e-mail ads. When they purchase from the catalogues, Shop2u sends a donation to the consumer's designated charity.
Some infomediaries market on-line privacy protection tools. DM Group of Aurora, Ohio, is selling a sort of anti-marketing list of consumers who want their names suppressed from promotions. Consumers can opt-out at the company's site, DM1.com. The list costs marketers about $130 per 1,000 names.
PrivaSeek of Louisville, Colo., sells on-line "safety deposit boxes" for personal information, and is testing other products with about 2,000 volunteers. One offering helps consumers track the information gathered about them as they surf Web sites; another puts marketers in contact with willing PrivaSeek customers, who are paid for the use of their e-mail addresses.
PrivaSeek's chief executive officer, Larry Lozen, said he plans to offer a cobranded credit card.
"So far, consumers can opt in or opt out of direct marketing," he said. "But what we really see happening is the ability for the consumer to say they prefer to have information from one company, but not from another."
All these Internet initiatives signal one positive trend, industry experts say: People are reaching for greater control over their information.
"Consumers are concerned about who has information about them," said Mr. Prescott of the Direct Marketing Association. "They are asking for more transparency about what is going on, and they want to share in the wealth of this information."