7 On Your Side

More retailers requiring driver's license swipes

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's not unusual to be asked to show ID in order to make certain purchases, but now there's a new trend among retailers to swipe your driver's license through an electronic reader. That action has a lot of shoppers wondering just what is being checked and tracked.

Have you ever wondered what that magnetic strip on the back of your driver's license is?

It works like a credit card except it contains some personal information. Now, many businesses are using it to capture your information with one quick, easy swipe through a machine.

No one would doubt that Carolyn and Gene Taylor are old enough to drink; after all, she's 64 and he's 75. So it was a complete shock when they tried to buy liquor at a Rite Aid store in Oakley.

"The clerk asked me to take my driver's license out of my wallet and to scan it. I said 'Why?'" said Carolyn. "It was just to prove you were old enough to buy alcohol."

"We thought it was rather strange, seeing I'm almost 76 years old and getting carded. That is kind of different," said Gene.

Carolyn swiped her license anyway, went to her car with her two bottles, and then suddenly had a terrible thought.

"It's out there. The cat's out of the bag now that I consume alcohol," said Carolyn. "I thought, 'Great, now what have I done?' I thought, 'I bet my health insurance is going to go up,' or 'Is my car insurance going to go up?'"

"The more we thought about it, we thought, 'What is this? We should be able to buy a bottle if we want and where in the world is this information going when they swipe the card?'" said Gene.

"Am I going to be categorized? Is this Big Brother looking down on us again? I didn't know what to do, so I decided to call 7 On Your Side and get some of these answers," said Carolyn.

She did call 7 On Your Side and it seems this is bigger than Rite Aid. A growing number of retailers, night clubs, rental companies and banks now are requiring you to swipe your driver's license to make all kinds of transactions.

The scanning instantly captures the information contained in the magnetic strip on the back of your license.

"The scary part is what are they doing with it?" said Gene.

Customers at a Safeway store in Petaluma got pretty riled up too after some signs noting their new requirement. The store was now swiping the licenses of everybody buying liquor -- no matter their age. It spurred one 65-year-old resident to start blogging in protest.

Then there is scanners at nightclubs, like one sports bar in San Carlos. It has a yellow scanner above the bar that not only reads data, it displays the customer's age right on the screen.

"This really raises people's hackles. People do not like doing this," said Pam Dixon.

Dixon of World Privacy Forum says the swiping is legal, but selling and compiling your data is not.

"Stores are only supposed to use it for certain purposes. How do we know the stores are doing that? The answer is, we don't and that's why it makes people so nervous," said Dixon.

So who's swiping and why? Here are some examples: Target stores scan licenses for all alcohol purchases and if you return items without receipt. The store wants to make sure you aren't buying and returning too many items per year.

At Victoria's Secret, customers who return items also must swipe. That's to prevent customers from buying, wearing once, and returning. Bank of America scans licenses if ID is required for a transaction such as cashing a check, but the license data is not stored.

As for Safeway, only eight stores scan licenses because they had a problem with sales to minors. The scanners only read date of birth and Safeway says data is not stored.

Sneakers, the sports bar in San Carlos, says it uses the scanner to detect fake IDs and verify age. Data is not stored there either.

Which brings the issue back to Rite Aid -- the retailer said swiping allows a quick age check and data is not kept. It has now changed the policy to skip the swipe for customers over 40. Still that's no comfort to Carolyn.

"It's worrisome. It's just one more thing you've got to worry about," said Carolyn.

So what's on that magnetic strip? Everything that's on the front of the card: your name, address, height, weight, and license number. The strip was put on our cards back in 1990 initially to make it easier for law enforcement, banks and retailers to easily collect your information.

One further note, because of all the complaints, Safeway in Petaluma will stop requiring scans for customers over 40.

Rules for how companies can use your license information:

Civil Code: CONFIDENTIALITY OF DRIVER'S LICENSE INFORMATION

    1798.90.1. (a) (1) Any business may swipe a driver's license or identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles in any electronic device for the following purposes:

    (A) To verify age or the authenticity of the driver's license or identification card.
    (B) To comply with a legal requirement to record, retain, or transmit that information.
    (C) To transmit information to a check service company for the purpose of approving negotiable instruments, electronic funds transfers, or similar methods of payments, provided that only the name and identification number from the license or the card may be used or retained by the check service company.
    (D) To collect or disclose personal information that is required for reporting, investigating, or preventing fraud, abuse, or material misrepresentation.
    (2) A business may not retain or use any of the information obtained by that electronic means for any purpose other than as provided herein.
    (b) As used in this section, "business" means a proprietorship, partnership, corporation, or any other form of commercial enterprise.
    (c) A violation of this section constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for no more than one year, or by a fine of no more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both.

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