Credit card issuers are partly to blame for consumers' growing distrust of how information about them is used, according to a survey commissioned by MasterCard International Inc.
The survey indicated that consumers are fed up with the amount of junk mail they receive and that they view credit card companies as major culprits.
The perception may reflect reality: Last year alone, more than two billion pieces of mail were dropped by card issuers fishing for new customers.
MasterCard is doing research to help its members understand the public's concern about the dissemination and use of personal information. The New York-based card association maintains that privacy will be a hot-button issue in years to come.
Last year, 37 pieces of privacy legislation were introduced in Congress and state legislatures, and nine were enacted, relating primarily to telemarketing and credit reporting, according to MasterCard.
In addition to research, the association plans to form an advisory panel that will help establish guidelines for the industry. Members of the association will be invited to join the group, which is expected to begin meeting in March.
Other MasterCard privacy initiatives include a consumer awareness program and member education meetings.
Visa International also has privacy-related programs under way, but a spokeswoman for the association declined to elaborate.
Recently, Visa added a section on privacy matters to its consumer educational program Choices & Decisions, which is distributed to high school and college students.
MasterCard's survey, done by Yankelovich Partners Inc., found that consumers see a direct correlation between receiving a new credit card and being ambushed with card solicitations shortly thereafter.
One respondent said, "After I got my new credit card, I started receiving a large number of solicitations from all over the country. I consider this junk mail."
This is particularly annoying to consumers because it indicates that the information they gave the company issuing their new credit card was sold without their permission to another company for marketing purposes.
The MasterCard survey underscored a theme of two other surveys released last October. Those surveys focused on interactive services and general privacy issues and were developed in conjunction with the newsletter Privacy & American Business.
All the privacy research indicates that people want more control over how companies use and share what they learn about them.
MasterCard's survey, which involved telephone interviews last May with 507 respondents, showed that 47% believe companies issuing credit cards are doing a "fair or poor job of managing the information they collect about people and their families."
Ninety-four percent said they want to be told before information about them or their families is made available. Even if they are told in advance or their permission is requested, more consumers than not feel "very uncomfortable" about credit card marketers' sharing with other companies information about their income, purchasing decisions, and credit histories.
Nevertheless, MasterCard believes that its survey identifies marketing opportunities for card issuers.
"This research is very important," said a spokeswoman for the association, "because it points us in a direction" to explore the issues further.
MasterCard is particularly interested in answers that reveal consumers' interest in receiving solicitations - provided consumers have control over how those companies obtained information about them.
A 54% majority of respondents agreed that, "while it's annoying to receive so much mail and unsolicited phone calls, sometimes the information lets me know about things I would not otherwise know about."
Janet C. Koehler, AT&T Universal Card Services Corp.'s executive director of consumer affairs, said MasterCard's survey reinforces AT&T's corporate philosophy on privacy.
"Consumers believe that the use of their information will result in more junk mail when, actually, the opposite is true. They will get mail they are interested in."
AT&T, the fifth-largest credit card issuer, is one of a relative handful with stated customer privacy policies. The company's principles include an opt-out policy, which allows customers to limit the number of calls and promotional materials from AT&T; a policy not to sell customers' names to other marketers; and a policy not to share customer information with companies that offer joint services or products with AT&T.
While companies like American Express, Citicorp, and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. have similar privacy codes, this is uncharted territory for much of the credit card industry.
American Express was the pioneer of corporate privacy principles, when it issued a code in 1978.
"Some of our members have been focused on this issue for years, but for others, (consumer privacy) is a new topic," said Helene Graf, MasterCard's vice president of customer satisfaction and service.
One of the many debates over consumer privacy concerns who owns the data that are collected - consumers or marketing companies that compile the information.
Ms. Graf said that the industry now is grappling with how access to those data is granted.
Eileen Friars, president of NationsBank Card Services, said the company wants to be on the "leading edge" of responding to consumers' privacy concerns.
The NationsBank Corp. unit, based in Charlotte, N.C., recently did broad consumer research including general questions about privacy.
Ms. Friars conceded, however, that MasterCard's survey was more detailed, providing valuable information.
Most intriguing to the card executive was a finding that consumers are interested in getting more information on various products.